WASHINGTON - Lawmakers in Thailand debated a media ethics bill on Tuesday that some say will address the spread of "fake news" and others warn could be used to obstruct the work of journalists.
Dubbed the Media Ethics and Professional Standards Promotion Act, the legislation seeks to form a regulatory council that would set standards on ethics and oversee a registry of journalists, news outlets and online content creators.
If passed, an ethics board made up of lawyers, journalists with at least 10 years' media experience, and others would oversee public complaints and make recommendations on penalties such as warnings or fines.
Supporters of the bill say it will improve journalism standards and protect against false news and disinformation.
But critics say that the regulation could allow the government greater control over the media, noting that while registration with the council is not mandatory, the bill does not say how authorities will respond to journalists who choose not to register.
Critics also warn the council risks stifling coverage of sensitive issues and could result in curbing Thailand's vibrant social media scene.
Lawmakers Tuesday had mixed responses to the proposal.
Somchai Sawaengkarn, an appointed senator in parliament, said at the debate that the law could help reform an "ethically problematic" industry that currently includes real journalists and fake media.
But Thanyawat Kamolwongwat, an MP from the progressive-leaning Move Forward Party, said a broadly worded provision that press freedom not disrupt "good morality" could be used to obstruct the role media plays in democracy.
Ultimately, not enough lawmakers were present to put the draft to a vote.
The reprieve offered some relief for media advocates who are watching the passage of the bill closely.
"I'm relieved that, for once, our demand was heard in the halls of power," said Teeranai Charuvastra, vice president for press freedom and media reform at the Thai Journalists Association and a journalist at Prachatai English.
The journalist association has opposed the draft bill as have other Thai media organizations.
Teeranai said that some wording in the draft bill may inadvertently open a door to interference.
Additionally, media ethics could be defined so narrowly that it could stifle investigative reporting and discourage discussion of topics deemed sensitive by the authorities, he said.
However, Teeranai believes that an effective and practical mechanism is needed to encourage the press to be more responsible.
Wasinee Pabuprapap, co-founder of the nonprofit Thai Media for Democracy Alliance, says she is concerned that the bill could leave journalists confused over what they can safely report.
"We can expect more self-censorship from the press," said Wasinee, who is also a reporter for the news outlet Workpoint Today.
She noted that the timing of the law is putting some journalists on edge. A general election is expected to be called in 2023 and political parties are already campaigning.
Journalists in Thailand already work in a legally challenging environment, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. As a result, mainstream media typically follow the government line and outlets that try to offer an opposing view risk harassment.
Reporters "need to be aware that any criticism of the government could cause a draconian response," RSF has said. In its summary of the Thai media environment, RSF notes that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has said journalists should "play a major role in supporting the government's affairs."
In the restrictive environment, Russia and China have attempted to expand their influence in Thailand through state-controlled operations.
In August, members of the state-run China Media Group and the Confederation of Thai Journalists held discussions on cooperation, including working together on "correcting fake news and disinformation" on legacy media and social media platforms.
A press release from the Confederation of Thai Journalists said the talks focused on "disinformation" that impacted the public image of China.
It added that the China Media Group recommended reporting only "positive, non-divisive subjects" on Thailand to create a "good perception" of the country for Chinese audiences.
Some Thai media outlets, including the conservative TOP News, have regularly broadcast pro-Russian stories during the war in Ukraine.
On Feb. 1, Prayut and some Cabinet members attended an event marking the second anniversary of the media outlet. The prime minister also featured on one of its live morning news shows, telling audiences to follow the station, which, he said, 'presents news from facts, according to my assessment.'
Countries globally are seeing a rise in disinformation.
But journalist associations in Thailand have previously said that while the media sometimes make errors in their reporting, they do not publish false news.
When an order was issued under an emergency decree in 2021 to tackle what the government labeled "disinformation" over its handling of the coronavirus, six media outlets protested the move.
In a joint statement, the media groups said, "Although there are some reporting errors, they are not disinformation as labeled by the government."
Thai House Speaker Chuan Leekpai has said the proposed media bill will be put back in line behind other bills waiting on a vote. MPs and observers, however, doubt that a vote will happen before the current House session ends in a few weeks.