Welcome to the second part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review series. Today we highlight the state of freedom of speech, which is still endangered by the draconian lèse majesté law. We also take a look at the ongoing protests, where Thailand’s media itself became the story.

As the current chaotic protests are dominating the headlines, earlier this month yet another man was found guilty of defaming Thailand’s monarchy for posting two anti-monarchy messages on a web forum. Article 112 of the Criminal Code, also more commonly known as the lèse majesté law, cites that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” However, this time there was also this:

The third offence was related to an attempt to insult the monarchy. The prosecutor made the accusation that evidence on the defendant’s computer showed that he had prepared to post another lèse majesté message on the web forum, but the attempt failed because of his arrest and the confiscation of his computer. He was found guilty under Articles 112 and 80 of the Criminal Code for the attempted offence and was sentenced to three years and four months in jail. Nevertheless, the judges did not give the rationale for their decision.

Thai man found guilty of attempted lèse-majesté“, Prachatai English, December 12, 2013

With the other offenses he was sentenced to a total of over 13 years in prison, but it was reduced to six years and eight months due to his plea of guilty and “beneficial testimony”. It is an unprecedented and worrying ruling since for the first time somebody was convicted of “attempted lèse majesté”, invoking Article 80 of the Criminal Code.

But given the lèse majesté sentencings of this past year, it is clear that things have not improved – it may have gotten even worse.

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk

Veteran activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison for alleged lèse majesté in January 2013. Photo courtesy of Lillian Suwanrumpha.

In January, a red shirt leader was sentenced to two years in prison for merely hinting at the monarchy. Later that month, veteran activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was found guilty of lèse majesté in a high-profile case with much international attention and followed by strong reactions. His offense: editing – not writing himself – two political essays that at best made allusions to the royal family for a now-defunct political red shirt magazine. Somyot was sentenced to 11 years even though he had already been in detention since April 2011 and been denied bail 15 times until today.

Numerous lèse majesté complaints filed this year also showed how frivolously the law is being misused: an activist targeted for distributing mock banknotes depicting Thai historical figures other than the King; a TV host filing a complaint against a student activist months after she was sitting on it; a sibling rivalry turned bitter with one brother accusing the other of insulting the King, causing him to be jailed for a year before he was acquitted; and even ex-yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul was found guilty because he quoted inflammatory remarks by somebody else. In related news, a court upheld a suspended sentence against Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn for not deleting web comments quickly enough that were deemed insulting to the monarchy.

In November, the courts added a new dimension to lèse majesté that was previously unheard of by stating that the law also applied to previous kings, thus not only arbitrarily expanding taboo topics, but also making critical, academic research into current Chakri dynasty impossible.

What is apparent is the need to openly discuss the law and how it is being misused, as ThaiPBS attempted to earlier this year. But it was met with outrage and resistance by a vocal minority, still maintaining and promoting the perception that even talking about the law is illegal, which is factually wrong and deliberate misinformation. With the current political polarization deeper than ever, even a consideration to reform the lèse majesté is now further away than ever.

Also worrying is the increased usage of 112 in combination with the Computer Crimes Act – which we have criticised numerous times before – as an effective tool to crack down online dissent. So it came as no surprise when the commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division [TCSD] Pol. Maj-Gen Pisit Pao-in emerged as the new self-appointed chief censor, brazenly using scare tactics to curb political online rumors. Likely emboldened by the sudden public attention, he went a step further and threatened to monitor the mobile messaging app LINE, demanding the developers behind it cooperate (to which they refused). You know when you’ve taken it too far when even the ICT minister (not widely known as a free speech proponent either) disagreed with Pisit’s audacious plans and the latter was soon forced to backpaddle.

Media in the crossfire of protesters

With the country’s relapse back to street protests, so grew the news coverage of them both in the domestic and international media. With the volatile political situation the fight over the sovereign narrative was in full swing and again, those not agreeing were at the receiving end of accusations of being biased with even physical attacks against both local and foreign colleagues.

The protesters felt misrepresented especially by the foreign media and fired back in the same vitriolic manner as they did back in 2010 with a sense of hurt national pride, entitlement and superiority. However, the protesters – equipped with their own satellite TV channel and other media outlets – have so far failed to present credible non-Thai language sources to back up their claims. In a similar vein they also targeted Thai free TV stations during one of their rallies in early December. The TV channels have greatly resisted the hostile takeover attempts and the pressure to cease their broadcasts and switch to the protesters’ channel.

It is said that “journalism is the first rough draft of history” and it looks like, thanks to the protesters’ attitude to the media, the first drafts will be less than favorable towards them regardless of the outcome.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.