The Grey Area of Freedom of Expression in Thailand
Being a committed advocate for freedom of expression, I have recently had the honour of being accused on Twitter by one foreign supporter of the red-shirt movement, by the name of Andrew Spooner (@Andrewspoooner), of supporting the right of yellow-shirt mouthpiece ASTV-Manager Weekly News Magazine to engage in “hate campaign” against one young red-shirt woman on its current weekly issue (Issue no.138, May 26-Jun 1, 2012).
Perhaps it’s because I have yet to publicly denounce the cover-page article on the lady referred to as Orm (อ้อม) on page 4-5 of the magazine or make it explicit that I disapprove of such article when Spooner tweeted to accuse me.
While we can debate whether the article constitutes an outright hate campaign or not, or more like a witch-hunt article which is the view I subscribe to, let us examine the socio-cultural as well as political context of freedom of expression before we proceed to the very grey area of freedom of expression in Thailand.
In a society which largely equates facile consensus and harmony as good, a substantial number of Thai populace from both sides of the political divide do still believe in the ‘virtue’ of censorship and one-sided positive-only information.
Tolerance and appreciation for honest criticisms in Thailand is very low – almost nil. Think of the lese majeste law with its 15 years maximum imprisonment term, the Computer Crimes Act which makes intermediaries equally liable, think of many banned books and undistributed foreign magazines critical of the Thai monarchy, the censorship of movies that criticize Buddhism or Thaksin Shinawatra. Even the otherwise amusing and hilarious movie and play, The King and I, is still banned in this kingdom!
Currently, Red Sunday group leader Sombat Boon-ngam-anong has been in the hot seat, for having ‘dared’ to criticize Thaksin Shinawatra as some red shirts accused him of being a traitor to the red-shirt movement. Basically, it’s hard for some reds to believe that you can be red and still want to criticize Thaksin. The same can be said for Thais who are critical of the monarchy institution. They are often summarily cast as anti-monarchist republicans.
Many Thais continue to believe that information critical of the monarchy must be banned and censored for most Thais, who they believe cannot differentiate facts from fictions, truths from untruths and are easily misled. Such beliefs offer the state the ‘legitimacy’ to continue to suppress the freedom of expression in the name of protecting the monarchy or national security.
It is against this backdrop of rampant censorship, self-censorship and climate of fear that I feel Thailand will have to first learn the merit of freedom of expression and cherishe it as well as guard it.
Following the inception of yellow-shirt media, then red-shirt media, as reactions to the perceived bias and censorship practiced by the Thai mainstream mass media, these new overtly partisan media that I called ‘vigilante media’ often stray into the grey area of freedom of expression that at times involve hate speech and witch hunt campaign.
In the current issue of the yellow-shirt weekly news magazine, the name and residential village location in Khon Kaen province of Orm is provided in the article. While there exists no direct invitation to attack Orm, the article concludes that Orm’s displeasure at the monarchy must mean she is a republican, like other reds who seek to overthrow the monarchy institution.
While I do not condone such disgraceful and virulent article disguised as journalism, I do believe that it would be wrong and harmful to Thai society in general to start calling for some authorities to shut down the magazine altogether. (In case some readers wonder whether I am ‘in bed’ with ASTV or not, please note that there have been over seventy mostly rude and insulting remarks against me from the media outlet’s fans following a news article on me facing a lese majeste police complaint on ASTV news website, with one suggesting that my mother must have had a sexual intercourse with dog.)
My belief is to cultivate maximum tolerance to freedom of expression and to endorse minimum censorship if not at all. In the case of Orm, I think it would be best for organizations like the Press Council of Thailand or the Thai Journalist Association (TJA) to issue a statement or warn ASTV-Weekly News Magazine. The lady referred to in the article could lodge a complaint at the two media bodies and also lodge a police complaint if she feels threatened and harassed by the magazine.
It must be also noted however that the magazine showed a picture of Orm allegedly holding a pretty incendiary placard during a recent red-shirt gathering to mark the second anniversary of the April-May 2010 bloody crackdown on red shirts. The placard can be interpreted by ultra-royalists as being ‘indirectly’ offensive or insulting to the King.
'I am phrai. Does it bother your father? I don't love. Will your father die?'
So did both Orm and the magazine entered into the grey area of freedom of expression? I believe so. Freedom of expression must also take into account the rights of others from being violated, physically and emotionally. But learning to tolerate extreme views that stop short of a direct physical threat is also needed in Thailand.
And even if I were to follow Spooner’s knee-jerk stance, then there’s also the question of who is to decide what to censor and what not to be censored. And who will select or elect this censorship board and how can we make them accountable to the public? Mind you, Thailand has a Film Board which has just recently banned the movie ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ which criticizes Thaksin.
I don’t think Thailand can afford to hand back the power to censor mass media to a handful of ‘enlightened’ beings. It’s already bad enough with the lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act. More censorship would simply plunge Thailand deeper into the abyss of ignorance and immaturity. When people are mature, no amount of hate speech can influence them. Preventive censorship will almost certainly keep citizens from ever becoming mature, however. (It should be worthwhile for concerned citizens or state organizations or NGOs to set up an organization to campaign against hate speech and educate people about the pitfall of hate speech though.)
Even if you shut down the ASTV, it won’t stop hate messages against red shirts, and vice versa. Do we then need to shut down the internet and read just one ‘appropriate’ newspaper and watch just one ‘appropriate’ television channel? And how do we know whether these ‘appropriate’ media are not feeding us with propaganda if there exist no competing views from other media, no matter how incendiary?
The truth is, nobody can or have the right to babysit us forever. Thais will have to learn to be more tolerant, use good judgment, exercise the freedom of expression more responsibly, and not be easily tempted by hate speech, the vulgarity and shallowness of some news articles, or the urge to establish the Ministry of Censorship.
Enough censorship and self-censorship persists in today’s Thailand. Let’s not plunge deeper into the instant-gratification urge to have someone decide for us what we can and should read, listen or watch.
The answer is more tolerance, not more censorship, more maturity, not more censorship.
When you see a rubbish article like the one on Orm, recognize it as such and be tempted not to join a witch hunt, even if you are a royalist.
(By the way, if Spooner thinks the witch hunt goes in one direction only, please note that some who feel sympathetic to the lese majeste police complaint against me, have also put the picture and address of the man who lodge the police complaint against me, on the internet. This is not something that I am proud or can approve of.)
Note: Below are the tweets I received from @andrewspoooner and a kind rebuttal from @naphat, a Thai whom I have never met.