10 October 2002
Representatives of media organisations, editors come together to fight press freedom violations
(TJA/IFEX) - The following is a 9 October 2002 news release by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), of which TJA is a member:
Bangkok--Representatives of media organizations and editors from national and provincial dailies met on Tuesday to brainstorm on issues related to free media violations. They came together to articulate views and find measures to halt what they described as the "growing unfair treatment of the media."
The session was organized by the Thai Journalists Association, the Press Council of Thailand and the Confederation of Thai Journalists.
In recent months, several editors have been jailed following the filing of libel suits by politicians. The editors complained that the courts acted unfairly by not allowing any parole or appeals. Under Article 329 of the Criminal Law, all defendants have the right to be released on bail after being fined.
In his welcoming remark, Somchai Krusuansombat, president of The Press Council of Thailand, noted that the large turnouts of editors and journalists at the session showed that violations against press freedom have reached a critical level.
He said that court verdicts on libel cases filed by politicians or civil servants were unfairly harsh on the media. The libel cases against the media increased due to the growing numbers of articles exposing negligence of duty and corruption among politicians and those who are in power.
Moreover, in certain legal cases, those involved in the judicial process "failed to use their own merit of judgement based on facts and evidence" to reject at the outset lawsuit claims in libel cases against the media. This happened in cases where the plaintiff was a politician or powerful individual.
In many cases, public figures (politicians, civil servants) filed lawsuits against journalists who were critical of them, not for the sake of justice but as a tactic to fence them off from critics. By enlarging the lawsuits to target a number of personnel in the administrative office, the plaintiffs intended to lay substantive legal burdens on the media. "If this trend persists, media will no longer be able to perform the watchdog role," Somchai reiterated.
Editors were also concerned that under Thai law there is no concept of a "public figure", who is open to scrutiny by the media. This posed difficulty when they used their judgement on whether to pursue investigative stories about individuals who they think are public figures.
Several suggestions were made including the right of editors to file libel suits against public figures, if they find their accusations untrue. Editors should ask for the right to bail. Under the constitution, a Thai citizen has the inalienable right to ask for bail.
Varin Thiemcharas, a legal adviser for the Poll Watch Committee, told the Thai media to engage the Ministry of Justice as new laws, which editors should be aware of, have been enacted following bureaucratic reforms.
He urged the journalists to be more proactive in the judicial process because the constitution provides abundant legal tools to counter unfair treatment and practices against the media.
Some editors agreed that newspapers should impose self-regulatory writing practices -for example, on how far to go and what issue to cover- when they scrutinize public figures in order to avoid libel suits.
During the exchanges, media professional organizations and editors agreed unanimously that the 1941 Printing Act is the biggest obstacle to media freedom. The 61-year-old law gives printing authorities the power to shut down media. So far, the government and lawmakers have not made any commitment to annul, it even though it has been deemed unconstitutional.
In a joint communique released at the end of the meeting, participants urged the authorities concerned, especially lawmakers, to enact organic laws as soon as possible to protect media freedom in accordance with the spirit and letter contained in Articles 39, 40, and 41 of the constitution.
They also urged the government to abolish the 1941 law unconditionally.
Despite the constitutional guarantee, there are at least 27 laws in various disguises that can limit media freedom in Thailand, according to Manich Sooksomchitra, a senior editor of Thai Rath Daily.
The communique also urged concerned officials in the judicial process to use their judgement objectively in scrutinizing libel cases against the media, taking into consideration the role of the media.
In response to growing criticism about media professionalism, the participants also reiterated that they would stringently follow their code of ethics and professionalism.