The lese majeste witch hunt

16 09 2011

Simon Montlake at Forbes continues the pattern of international exposure of the political and quite bizarre nature of Thailand’s lese majeste and computer crimes laws. He says:

Internet webmasters are expected to monitor their sites for illegal or inappropriate content. Most Internet companies have policies for dealing with such content, such as takedowns in response to complaints and other feedback. But this may not be enough to escape prosecution in Thailand, which is on the warpath against online political speech. A high-profile trial of an Internet webmaster accused of not keeping sufficiently close tabs on her customers … has gotten plenty of attention lately. It has even rung alarm bells among global companies. They worry that Thailand’s clampdown on websites is bad for free speech and for e-commerce.

He’s referring to the trial of Prachatai’s Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Montalake laments the changes in Thailand:

Thailand was once a relative bastion of free speech in a repressive region but has rowed rapidly backwards since a coup in 2006. As political tensions have risen, conservatives have launched a witch hunt to find enemies of Thailand’s royal family. The monarchy is supposed to be apolitical, but this is a fiction.

The result is that “[d]ozens of Thais and a Thai-American are either on trial, facing trial or in prison for breaching Thailand’s royal defamation law,” not to mention thousands upon thousands of URLs blocked as anti-monarchy.

The more publicity lese majeste cases deliver, the more ridiculous the conservative witch hunts seems. The problem is that it continues, so far unabated.

Academic freedom challenged

25 05 2011

Simon Montlake comments on declining academic freedom in the Christian Science Monitor. Of course, this relates to the lese majeste case brought by the Army chief against history professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul at Thammasat University.

The report begins: “An outspoken historian is facing the threat of a criminal trial for his writings on the Thai monarchy, spurring an international appeal by scholars for the protection of academic freedoms in Thailand.”

Some useful quotes from the story:

“Watchdog groups say Thailand’s widespread use of repressive laws such as lèse-majesté to silence critics has undermined its democratic rights. US-based Freedom House recently ranked Thailand with dictatorships like China and Cuba for its ‘substantial censorship’ of political debate. Thai authorities continue to shut down media outlets allied to the opposition red-shirt movement. Armed police raided several red-shirt radio stations on April 26 for airing anti-royal speeches.” PPT thinks there should be an “allegedly” associated with “anti-royal speeches.”

“Somsak is among a group of intellectuals who have called for root-and-branch reform of the monarchy to diminish its political influence.”

David Streckfuss: “If charges are brought against him, it would really put a dent in Thailand’s image as a place where general freedoms are observed…”.

“For academics, this creates a ‘black hole’ in the study of Thailand’s modern history, says Michael Montesano, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore. While some studies have simply echoed official hagiographies of the current ruler, others have resorted to coded language or bitten their tongues…”.

Montesano: “In recent years, this caution has ebbed a bit. But Somsak has really pushed the envelope…”.

Prime Minister “Mr. Abhisit [Vejjajiva], who was educated at Oxford University, has said that non-partisan scholarship on the monarchy is permissible.”

Kevin Hewison: “said Somsak’s case was a test for Abhisit. ‘He has stated several times that academic comment on the monarchy is acceptable. If it now isn’t, [his] reputation will be in tatters for scholars who follow Thailand’…”.

PPT thinks it worth noting that there are now reformist and abolitionist perspectives on lese majeste. Somsak’s case is a clear over-step by an enraged Army boss. Arguably, this is also the case for Somyos Pruksakasemsuk, who continues to be held without bail.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha has shown that he is unable to comprehend Thailand’s current political climate and the changes that have taken place in recent years. So while the action against Somsak is an act of repression, it has thrown open a door that the royalists can’t shut. The more “liberal” amongst them must press for reform of the lese majeste law. If they don’t do this, as Sulak Sivaraksa says, time and again, they risk the monarchy itself.

Media bias

23 03 2010

A debate on media bias has now been going on for some time, and as regular readers will well know, PPT has made several comments on this in the recent past (for an example, see here). There have been some comments in the international press about this also. Now Simon Montlake in the Christian Science Monitor (22 March 2010) has a story on it that has also been taken up by Bangkok Pundit.

Montlake rightly observes that thousands of red shirts – interestingly, he accepts an official figure of 65,000 – paraded around Bangkok on Saturday and points out that “viewers of Thailand’s TV stations, the most popular source of news, were told that 25,000 attended. As usual, pictures of protesters were bracketed by statements from government officials. No airtime was given to ordinary protesters. And last week when protesters dumped blood at the prime minister’s office and home, pro-government media hyped up the health risks and the ethics of wasting human blood, while antigovernment media focused on the symbolism of Thais willing to shed blood for the cause.”

It is also accurate for Montlake to observe that “Thailand’s mainstream media faces fresh questions over its neutrality, which has already been tested by four years of political turmoil and polarization. Critics say bias is acute on free-to-air TV channels, which are all under government or military control.”

Supinya Klangnarong, “a free-media campaigner,” is quoted by Montlake as arguing that “the spread of new media is providing a check on the government’s control of the message, … [adding] mainstream TV channels no longer have the power to distort the facts as blatantly as they did in 1992 as they must compete with other sources of information, including images and texts spread via mobile phone and the Internet.” Supinya believes that the government “realizes that if they push too much control or manipulation, people will not believe it anymore…”.

PPT believes this is a premature judgment. For one reason, the government television stations have become little more than mouthpieces for items of propaganda that is now remarkably similar to that seen on ASTV. As one of Montlake’s informants, a “TV news editor, who declines to be named for fear of reprisals” says, the “government meddling in news coverage, which was also a hallmark of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s five-year rule, remains pervasive.” That editor adds: “It’s worse now…”.

A second reason for doubting Supinya is because while mobile phones are everywhere, they are limited sources of news, and while the internet is better, penetration rates in Thailand remain low. A third problem is that internet censorship has expanded exponentially under this government and the government also has officials working the blogs to post pro-government and anti-red shirt material. Even the English-language blogs see a suspicious rise in mole-like posting by particular commentators, often adopting multiple identities, who only appear in times of conflict..

While we usually agree and admire Bangkok Pundit, PPT has to say that we think BP’s account of media bias is trite. One of the major differences we have with Pundit is that we do not think that watching and reading is enough. In fact, early on in the current red shirt rally, PPT was also getting adjusted to the media’s coverage. Hence, when PPT went to the protest site expecting to see a dwindling crowd and a lack of interest, we were staggered by how different it was. The media was simply not reporting factually or wasn’t be permitted to do so. Worse, it often seemed like reporters were waiting for the sensational or hoping for violence.

Indeed, PPT has been to three red shirt events of late and none of them had any noticeable media interest. At Rajadamnoen, the media huddles around the red shirt leaders (is that because they get to sit in a cool tent?). PPT saw no attempts by the media to get around the very large area of the rally or any attempt to interview the protester in the street, apart from a BBC reporter. We know there have been some interviews, but all of these spots are stuck into hugely biased contexts. Context matters a heck of a lot. And, in a context of extreme bias, so does getting out and seeing what’s going on.

Worse, the talk shows on most of the mainstream television stations don’t even make a pretense of being fair, and government stations that Bangkok Pundit says was the best of the bunch last week is, in PPT’s perspective, now irretrievably biased if one takes any notice of the talk shows, which occupy far more airtime than the news broadcasts. And it was only a year or so ago that the Democrat Party-led government’s Sathit Wongnongtoey, said that he was going to create a true public broadcaster. That now seems like a nightmare rather than a dream.

The past couple of days has been a travesty for Thai journalism, which was once considered one of the best in Asia. Thaksin can be blamed for some of this, but the military-backed governments led by Surayud Chulanont and Abhisit Vejjajiva have ground journalism into the dust.

That said, PPT continues to appreciate those few journalists who hold out against a tide of repression, censorship and bias. In addition, we feel somewhat heartened by some of the expression of dissent that we see in some reports, often with the pictures not matching the words, as was clear on TNN reporting of Saturday’s red shirt caravan.

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