THAILAND: Self-censorship causing serious damage

On December 7 a man was arrested and charged for having spray painted over images of the King of Thailand in the northern province of Chiang Mai. The man reportedly claimed that he was drunk and expressed regret for his actions. However, a member of the military junta running the country has ordered the army to investigate separately on suspicion that the man, who faces a 15-year jail term, was put up to the job.

The incident was reported to the world by the Associated Press, Reuters and the International Herald Tribune, among others; but what about in Thailand itself? Apart from a small piece in one Thai-language daily, no news media there appear to have covered the story. This is not because it was overlooked or not newsworthy: the wires are checked by local news agencies, and the incident was relatively rare and interesting, partly because the accused man is Swiss. Apparently, newspapers and other media in Thailand made a conscious decision not to report on it.

The story is important because it reveals the extent of self-censorship in Thailand’s media since the military coup of September 19. Even straight news events with a remote connection to the junta or royal family are not being covered. Where mild criticism of the military-sponsored administration or its backers appears, it is countered by virulent defence of the government and its policies by columnists, guest writers and readers’ letters, which gives the false impression of public debate.

Having stoutly defended the generals’ takeover as the “Thai way” to restore democracy and the rule of law, and shamelessly gushed admiration for their appointed prime minister, the media in Thailand is now timorous and restrained. It has barely commented in recent weeks on hugely important developments such as the return and expansion of security forces power to the notorious Internal Security Operations Command, the awarding of an enormous increase in budget to the armed forces–in addition to the monthly pay checks now being collected by the heads of the military regime–as well as the persistent systematic efforts by the junta to block attempts to organise against it.

Under the former administration, there were many grave threats to journalists, publishers and broadcasters. Advertising revenue from the then-prime minister’s family companies, criminal defamation and bombast were all openly used to intimidate government critics. Media regulations and institutions were wantonly manipulated and abused. But a spirit of resistance persisted throughout parts of the media and the government was at least forced to abide by the pretence of democratic principles.

By cheering on the coup leaders–rather than taking a more critical and independent-minded stance–the news media in Thailand has defeated that spirit of resistance. To be sure, the steps taken by the regime to block free expression have since September 19 been many. Its order for the media to “cooperate” with its version of events, combined early on with a physical presence in and around broadcast media and the shutting down or heavy restriction of avenues for uncensored speech–such as call-in radio programmes, local stations and websites–together with the persistence of martial law across roughly half of the country almost three months on from the takeover all indicate its obsession with controlling public opinion. But despite this there has still been room for the print media at least to resist encroaching fear and report honestly. This has not happened.

One of the most sensitive areas of social development is freedom of opinion. A multitude of voices reveals conflict, as it tests the limits of established rules and ways of talking in a society. Open societies are characterised by a spirit of disagreement and the exchange of dissenting voices. Closed societies are characterised by the appearance of consensus and the absence of overt conflict. The difference between one and the other depends to a large extent not upon direct censorship but the tendency towards self-censorship and disinclination of people to assert their right to speak loudly.

In a 1945 essay, George Orwell characterised the difference between a society in which public opinion is given freely and one in which it is restrained:

“The relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them… The notion that certain opinions cannot safely be allowed a hearing is growing. It is given currency by intellectuals who confuse the issue by not distinguishing between democratic opposition and open rebellion… And even those who declare themselves to be in favour of freedom of opinion generally drop their claim when it is their own adversaries who are being prosecuted.”

How true these remarks are for Thailand today.

The Asian Human Rights Commission calls upon the journalists of Thailand to resist demands upon them to self-censor. It calls upon them to reclaim their role as investigators and fair-minded critics of government and public policy, rather than cheerleaders. It calls upon them to resist attempts by editors, publishers and broadcasters to force them to record a particular version of events that complies with the requirements of the military regime running the country today. It calls upon them to recognise their obligations to encourage freedom of opinion and keep their society from closing inwards. And it calls upon those editors, publishers and broadcasters too to wake up to their responsibilities to the public and recall the terms of section 41 of the abrogated 1997 Constitution:

“Officials or employees in a private sector undertaking newspaper or radio or television broadcasting businesses shall enjoy their liberties to present news and express their opinions under the constitutional restrictions without the mandate of any State agency, State enterprise or the owner of such businesses; provided that it is not contrary to their professional ethics. Government officials, officials or employees of a State agency or State enterprise engaging in the radio or television broadcasting business enjoy the same liberties…”

Journalists of Thailand, let the 1997 Constitution live on. Have the courage to excite, rather than dampen, public opinion, and keep your society awake and alert.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-309-2006
Countries : Thailand,