The bill was submitted Thursday to a military-appointed body tasked with reforming the Thai government.
Journalists delivered a protest letter to the body and four former journalists resigned from the group that authored the bill.
“It will bring Thailand back to the dark ages, when state power was in control of the media,” says Thepchai Yong, president of the Confederation of Thai Journalists.
The government says the legislation is needed to clean up corruption and prevent false reporting. But critics say it is a way for officials to avoid scrutiny.
The Thai press is already kept on a leash. Self-censorship is widespread due to Thailand’s draconian lese majeste laws, under which insulting the monarchy can land someone up to 15 years in jail. Last July, the ruling junta gave regulators the power to shut down broadcasters deemed a threat to national security, and in December the junta passed a cybercrime act that strengthens online censorship.
The bill was given to the National Reform Steering Assembly, the body that heads various subcommittees that are tasked with enacting political reform by Thailand’s military junta, including the media.
Thepchai delivered the protest letter to the steering assembly, while the four former reporters resigned because they said their views were ignored.
Journalists said it was unacceptable that the bill would require individual reporters to be vetted and licensed by the government.
“This is unprecedented. Journalists don’t need practicing licenses,” said Thepchai. “By licensing the media, it means you have direct control over them.”
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has said that all professions need to be trained and standardized, and that journalists were no exception. Coauthors of the bill say licenses are necessary to deter false reporting and corruption.
“Be a good man and good woman, and tell the truth… don’t do this gray business,” said Kanit Suwannate, air chief marshal and chairman of the committee that proposed the bill. “(Misreporting) has occurred, but I cannot tell you the evidence, because they try to hide the way they run the business.”
The bill will be debated by the steering assembly. Then it must be approved by the Thai cabinet and parliament before becoming law.
The proposed 13-member media ethics committee would have four seats reserved for government officials, and would set standards and “codes of conduct,” and would have the power to fine and confiscate the licenses of broadcasters and newspapers that violated them.
Journalists say because of the nature of Thai politics, the government appointees would be able to put pressure on other council members.