Why the proposed ‘media ethics bill’ worries me as a journalist
On Tuesday (February 7), unless something changes at the last minute, the draft of what is known as the “media ethics bill” will be introduced in Parliament. The prospect of this, however, is a cause of celebration for some, and anxiety for others. I’m among the latter.
As suggested by its formal name – Act on Media Ethics and Professional Standards – the draft aims to clamp down on the scourge of unethical practices in the press. If passed, a “Media Ethics Council” will be formed, funded with a budget of at least 25 million baht from the state and the authority to name and shame media agencies that dare to stray from their code of conduct.
It’s a noble goal. Who doesn’t want an ethical press? And while Thailand does have a network of professional media associations, whose job it is to promote ethical standards, they have no real authority to force anyone to change their ways. They are seen as powerless “paper tigers” at best, and dysfunctional at worst.
I know about these limitations firsthand, since I, too, am a key member of the Thai Journalists Association. Along with our partner organisations, we’ve tried to call out malpractice and offer guidance on whether it is ethical to provide coverage of suicides, the Russia-Ukraine War or mass killings – only to be shrugged off by every major media outlet. The sound of money being brought in by their web traffic and TV ratings is far louder than our voice.
That’s why I understand the frustration felt by media professionals who have contributed to the drafting of this legislation and thrown their support behind it. “We just need the tools to do the job”, I can hear them saying, “so we can finally get things done”.
But even though I believe the bill drafters have good intentions, I have reservations for three key reasons.
Firstly, there’s the wording of the proposed bill itself. As explained elsewhere, the bill has alarmed media freedom advocates because of its vague, sweeping language that opponents say could open the door to abuse or unfair treatment.
“The law aims to create a state-funded Media Council that will oversee the ethical compliance of media professionals or organisations that group themselves into ‘professional organisations’ and apply for membership under the Council,” my colleagues at Prachatai English wrote.
They continued: “The media recognised by the Council will have access to privileges that the Council may provide, such as training or national or international representation. Although there is still no idea of what the ethical standards will be, the Council can punish violations by 1) warnings, 2) probation and 3) public reprimand.”
This raises a number of legitimate questions. Who will be appointed to the Council? What will be their ties to those in power? How will they be held accountable, and how can we be sure that they will be impartial?
What is their definition of media ethics? What if some journalists and editors differ in their opinion of what constitutes ethical conduct?
Who will fall under their authority? What happens to the media who stays away and refuses to register with the Council out of suspicion or lack of faith? Will they be targeted by state officials branding them as “rogue media” not worthy of constitutional protection?
There’s certainly good intention behind the bill, and some fair suggestions that could help encourage media ethics, but those questions should be addressed before it gets passed into a law
Another point of my concern is the lack of awareness among the media. Many journalists were surprised to learn that the draft bill even existed. I, for one, only found out about the bill after it made news in January 2022 when the Cabinet endorsed it, despite my role as the press reform watchdog at TJA.
As a result, very few representatives from the press have been consulted.
This alone does not imply a malicious intent to keep the media in the dark; the bill has simply been in the pipeline for so long – ideas for such a law were raised as early as 2011 – that many in the media industry have simply forgotten about it, while younger journalists may not have heard of it at all.
Even professional media associations, or the very people at the heart of the existing self-regulation mechanism, have not reached a consensus about the draft bill. Some, like the National Press Council of Thailand, appeared to endorse it in at least some forms, while others either speak out against the legislation or remain undecided.
Just on Friday, the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand became the latest organisation to oppose the draft bill.
Such discord does not bode well for any law that seeks to establish an entity with a claim to represent the professional media community in its mandate to police the press.
Finally, my last point of concern has to do with the current government and its allies in the legislative branch, who will be overseeing the deliberation of the draft bill, if it does enter the Parliament in coming days.
The administration of PM Prayut Chan-o-cha has sadly proven itself in the past to be hostile to the freedom of the press. It has attempted to outlaw news coverage that spreads “fear” among the public, shut down media outlets covering anti-government protests, and mischaracterise criticism as “fake news,” while repeated police violence against journalists has gone unpunished.
Trusting the coalition parties and the unelected Senate – whose members were handpicked by General Prayut nearly in its entirety – with an opportunity to design how the media should do their job brings to mind the Thai proverb of “letting a cat guard a grilled fish”.
One has to also wonder why the lawmakers so urgently want to see this bill through in the parliament’s final stretch, when signs already indicate that a new election is on the horizon – a matter of weeks if not days away.
To his credit, there are indeed examples of laws beneficial to society that were passed under Prayut’s tenure. They include the anti-disappearance bill, which aims to end the longtime practice of security officers abducting and murdering dissidents, and the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), a legislation hailed by many experts for its attempt to balance the need to protect citizens’ privacy and the media’s ability to serve public interest.
But those achievements should be treated as an exception, not the norm. Even some proponents of the bill share my fear that pro-government lawmakers may still try to weaponise the proposed media ethics law into a new tool to silence the independent press.
We are especially concerned over the deliberation procedures, where draft laws are typically most vulnerable to passages not intended by the original drafters, a common trick we journalists call “stuffing”.
This is the time for caution, not haste. I believe the bill should be at least postponed until the next parliament takes charge, to give it more time for more clarity and broader participation from the media community.
But if the bill does get introduced to the parliament this week, then the media and civil rights watchdogs should do everything they can to make sure its deliberations are well informed and transparent. We should also ensure that any potential loopholes in the draft bill for interference from the state are closed for good.
Thailand is already blessed with a number of laws that – in their current form and enforcement – put a strain on what the media can report, from lèse-majesté to defamation. Journalists should make sure we don’t end up adding one more entry to the pantheon of censorship.
Teeranai Charuvastra is a journalist at Prachatai English and former news chief of Khaosod English. He also serves in the Thai Journalists Association as its vice president for Press Freedom and Media Reform.