11 July 2024

A lack of quorum forced the joint sitting of the Thai Parliament today to adjourn before a vote on the media ethics bill, which is widely opposed by media practitioners who fear it would restrict media freedom.

Opposition MPs raised strong objections to the bill, which seeks to set up a media ethics council, the proponents of which believe will ensure media independence and at the same time promote media ethics.

They argued that the bill is out of sync with the current media landscape and political environment.   The bill was endorsed by the Cabinet early last year and classified as an “urgent agenda” that requires deliberation in a joint parliamentary session.

“The bill claims to promote press freedom but, on the contrary, it will essentially lead to media control,” said Natthawut Buaprathum of the Move Forward Party.

Jirayu Huangsap, of the Pheu Thai Party, said the bill had its roots in the agenda of the National Council for Peace and Order, the military junta that seized power in 2014. The now-defunct council initiated a series of reforms as part of its “urgent agenda”, which included the media.

Major media professional organisations have also come out to oppose the bill, which requires all media organisations to be registered with the council and to comply with the ethical standards. Though the council would have no legal power to penalise media professionals or organisations that breach the code of ethics, it can issue reprimands and impose some forms of social sanctions.

Senator Somchai Sawangkarn, however, voiced support for the bill, which he said should help enforce media ethics.

“We have to admit that the media have problems with ethics and need to be held accountable,” said Somchai, himself a former journalist.

Another senator, Seri Suwanpanont, also defended the bill,which he said should make the media more responsible. “I don’t see anything in the bill which would curtail press freedom,” he said, noting that the bill does not empower the proposed media ethics council to penalise media for breaching the code of ethics.

“Its only power is to reprimand or put on probation violators of media ethic. The media people only talk about press freedom but hardly talk about responsibility,” he said.

In defending the bill on behalf of the Cabinet, Minister of Prime Minister’s Office Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana insisted that the government has no intention of interfering with the media. “The bill is not designed to pave the way for interference with the media, but to promote media ethics,” he said.

This is the first time that there are attempts to regulate the media through a statutory instrument. Thai media have been using a system of self-regulation to enforce media ethics, but its effectiveness is often questioned.

In their debate, opposition MPs called for a vote on the bill to be postponed to allow more public debate on it. Parliament President Chuan Leekpai, however, had to order the session adjourned as there was no quorum present.

It was the fourth time this year that a House session had to be adjourned due to a lack of a quorum.  It’s still unclear when or whether the Parliament will call for a vote on the bill during its current session which, according to a royal decree approved by the Cabinet today, will end on March 1st.