Polarizing colors in Thailand continue to put free expression to the test

Continuing attempts by former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his political allies to reassert themselves in Thailand’s political landscape, the abuse of lese majeste laws, and questions raised on the Thai media’s professionalism and neutrality in the midst of the country’s polarizing political conflicts, will most likely continue to hound and shape the Thai media sector in 2010.

Despite his self-imposed exile, Thaksin remains a looming figure in Thailand, and both his exposure to the public as well as government interests to limit the same, were key forces that kept government, media, and the public in an awkward dance throughout 2009. Thailand’s need to balance efforts at regaining political stability with Constitutionally guaranteed space for speech and a free press have been craftily exploited and tested not only by Thaksin, but by competing political forces that, with nary a trace of irony, call for democratic space and tolerance (for themselves) as well as speech restrictions (on their rivals) at the same time.

In 2009, such ironies and dilemmas were further underscored by the public’s own ambiguity towards a free and independent media. Violence against journalists—perpetrated by either side of the Yellow-Red political spectrum, and aggravated by unclear lines on the limits of public discourse about the pervasive influence of the monarchy—seemed exacerbated by a dangerous lack of understanding (or denial) of the role of independent media in a democratic country, and portend of continuing dangers to the press in 2010.

Yellow vs. red
Thailand’s politics over the past three years have been thrown off balance by the push and pull of competing forces whose only commonality lies in defining themselves relative to the country’s King and the monarchy he represents. With all sides pledging loyalty to the King, while simultaneously questioning the royalist credentials of the rest, the media has been put to the test, particularly in its ability to remain impartial (and at the same time respected), while it is called upon to help the public navigate, anticipate, and brace for, the present and future of Thailand.

For the Thai media, however, that has been easier said than done. Over the course of 2009, its work was perilous and vulnerable to all sides and interests, and the Thai media over the coming year will continue to be pressured to remain neutral and to pick a side at the same time.

A series of violent demonstrations by pro-Thaksin Red Shirts in April 2009 paralyzed Bangkok and culminated in deadly riots. Demonstrators harassed and hurled plastic water bottles at three journalists who were covering the riots. The Red Shirts accused the journalists of being biased in their reporting. Protest leaders then warned that they could not guarantee the safety of media persons covering their rallies. Later that evening, a taxi driver hurled an explosive device at the ASTV offices, a cable channel owned by media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul, a leader of the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts. A few days later, Sondhi survived an ambush near his office. Masked gunmen aboard a pick-up truck opened fire on his van, seriously wounding him.

Calling for censorship
In the aftermath of the riots, the government went after pro-Thaksin media in the latter part of April. Police raided community radio stations in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Lampang, Udon Thani, Patum Thani and another one in Bangkok. They confiscated transmission equipment and in one instance apprehended a station manager even as Red Shirts rallied nearby to protest the arrest.

Meanwhile, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) ordered all community radio stations not to broadcast “politically provocative messages” on pain of closure.

Though it was soon enough countered, censorship was firmly placed on the government agenda, with a chilling effect attendant to the very broaching of the idea. Prime Minister’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey suggested in May that the  National Telecom Commission should be equipped with a mandate to censor program contents of broadcast media—including TV, cable and satellite TV, mainstream radio stations and community radio stations before airing. The move was countered by civil society advocates as unconstitutional, but the very topic of censorship continued to hang in the air.

Thaksin, for his part, seemed determined to test the limits of Constitutional guarantees for a free press. He taunted Thai officials from exile (reportedly from his bases in Dubai and/or Cambodia) by broadcasting speeches in Red Shirt rallies and his own TV station. At every turn, Thaksin tested the limits of political speech and the rights of the media. In September, government radio news program host Jom Petpradab said he was pressured to resign after he interviewed Thaksin in his program. The interview was covered by all local newspapers the next day, infuriating the government. A government minister, PM Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey, insisted that Jom resigned on his own accord. All the same, the incident provoked a heated debate in the media community over free expression vis-a-vis the propriety of granting the fugitive Thaksin a government-funded platform to attack the government.

Lese majeste
Backdropping all of this—and indeed, most aspects of life in Thailand—is the looming image of Thailand’s beloved, but increasingly frail, King Bhumibol Adulydej. Hospitalized since September 2009, the King and his health have been inevitable matters of public concern in Thailand. But his very image and position have also been used by warring political players—from the current government to Thaksin and all the major political parties—to discredit and render each other vulnerable to Thailand’s lese majeste laws.

Lese majeste is a criminal offense in Thailand. As both Red and Yellow camps have used lese majeste law to fight each other, the line separating legitimate criticism and inflammatory speech have been blurred. In 2009, law enforcement agencies came down on more than a few parties that discussed the monarchy—in public and over cyberspace—in the context of Thailand’s past, current, and future political uncertainties.

The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology set the tone in January 2009 with its announcement that it had blocked 2,300 websites that allegedly insulted the monarchy.

A range of lese majeste cases over the course of 2009 illustrated the ambiguity (and therefore danger) of the charge.

In January, an academic and a writer were charged and convicted, respectively, of lese majeste. Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, was charged with lese majeste on 20 January over his book, “A Coup for the Rich”, which was critical of the military putsch that toppled Thaksin. Ungpakorn, who also holds British citizenship, fled to the UK the following month.

Meanwhile, Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was convicted on 19 January of insulting the monarchy in his novel “Verisimilitude”. He received a royal pardon in February.

On 30 June 2009, a lese majeste complaint was filed before the police against the trustees of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) over its alleged distribution of a CD containing the recorded speech of Jakrapob Penkair, who had served as a minister in the Thaksin administration, and who, in a speech at the FCCT in 2008, touched on topics of democracy, the monarchy, and republicanism in Thailand.

In the harshest outcome of a lese majeste charge in 2009, an activist sympathetic to Thaksin, Daranee “Da Torpedo” Chancheonsilapakul, was sentenced in August to 18 years’ imprisonment for insulting the monarchy in a series of “inflammatory speeches” she had given in rallies in Sanam Luang.

Promises of a light touch
PM Abhisit Vejjajiva early in the year conceded that the lese majeste law is prone to abuse, and that its application by the police and judiciary should be subject to review.

Because the charge can be brought by anyone against anybody else, moreover, the very existence of the law has a chilling effect that can induce self-censorship.

Twice in 2009 (and thrice since December 2008), distributors of “The Economist” took it upon themselves to hold back on issues carrying articles which touched on the monarchy’s role and future in Thai politics.

Given not only its influence, but also the influence of the parties and sectors that wield the threat of lese majeste (the major parties and the military included), it will be interesting to see how PM Abhisit follows through on his position on lese majeste in 2010. As pressure mounts on Abhisit to call for elections in 2010, moreover, both he and Thai media will themselves again walk a fine line down Thailand’s polarized landscape, on either side of which lese majeste will be a peril.

Deepening people’s anxieties over the reach of lese majeste is a 2007 law, the Computer Crimes Act, which critics had long warned would bring the vague provisions and harsh penalties of lese majeste to cyberspace—and therefore intimidating free expression not only over traditional media, but also in the day-to-day forums, networks, and even emails used by citizens.

Sure enough, the moderator of Prachatai.com, an independent news aggregator site, was charged on 6 March 2009 of violating the Computer Crimes Act. Police said Prachatai’s Chiranuch Premchaiporn neglected to take down an offending remark posted by one of the forum’s readers.

A month later, on 3 April 2009, the Criminal Court sentenced engineer Suwicha Thakor to 10 years’ imprisonment, over digital pictures he had emailed to friends. The files he sent reportedly contained material offensive to the King and Crown Prince.

In mid-September, after the King was brought to Siriraj Hospital for lung infection, news wire service Bloomberg posted an article reporting rumors surrounding the King’s health. Four people were later arrested for spreading—via email and blogs—the same points discussed by the Bloomberg report. All four were accused of causing a steep decline in Thailand’s stock market, and were charged with violation of the Computer Crimes Act. But the underlying premise of using “rumor-mongering” as a basis for invoking national security was criticized by free speech advocates in the country.

Another blogger, Nat Sattayapornpisut, 27, was held under the Computer Crimes Act from 15 to 27 October for allegedly sending “offensive” video clips to a blog called “StopLeseMajeste.” Although he has been released, no decision has been taken about his case and he faces the possibility of being detained again and prosecuted.

Caught in the middle
Through all the above turbulence, the Thai media has been caught in the middle. The Thai Journalists Association (TJA), noted in its yearend 2009 report that “the media is being questioned on whether it performs its duty in the interest of the public or for other purposes at a time when many people tend to believe that the media has significantly contributed to the escalation of the conflicts.”

TJA noted that with the breakthroughs in new media and the brewing political conflict, new media outlets sprung up among the rival political factions. Manager Group’s satellite-transmitted ASTV, identified with the royalist “Yellow Shirts” began offering an English language service called TAN (Thai-ASEAN News Network). On the other hand, Thaksin’s supporters set up Democratic TV channel, “Red News” newspaper and “Truth Today” magazine, Thaksinlive website and Voice TV whose assistant managing director is Thaksin’s son, Panthongthae Shinawatra.

TJA noted that these media transmitted not just news and facts but their respective camps’ opinions, which the journalists’ group further described as “propagandistic.” Partly in response to this, almost all free state-owned television stations, the Thai Public Broadcasting Service Organisation (TPBS ), cable news channel TNN, The Nation Channel and some private-operated radio stations with news program signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a self-regulatory body, the Council of Professional News Broadcasters.

TJA in its yearend report called on the government media not to broadcast distorted facts. It also appealed to the political media not to incite violence among the populace. It urged the mainstream media to remain professional in the midst of the crisis.

All, as said, will be easier said than done. In February 2010, the Thai court will hand down its verdict on Thaksin’s assets. Political observers are one in saying that, after taking a hiatus to give way to the King’s birthday celebration and the Christmas and New Year holidays, the former premier would again be mobilizing his supporters—and testing the limits of Thailand’s tolerance not only for political speech, but also the media’s coverage of the same.

The ensuing political battles, in other words, will continue to test the parameters of the Kingdom’s democratic space.

(SEAPA thanks the Thai Journalists Association for its contribution to this report.)