Lese Majeste Amendment UpdateBy Bangkok Pundit Oct 11, 2007 12:08AM UTC
An update to the proposed (and then withdrawn) amendments to the Lese Majeste law which I blogged about yesterday. The Bangkok Post is all over the story.
A bill to amend the Criminal Code was withdrawn from the National Legislative Assembly yesterday after a member of the Privy Council expressed reluctance to enjoy protection under the proposed amendment.
Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, who led a group of 64 NLA members suppporting the bill, decided to pull the amendment, which was to be tabled for the NLA’s consideration today.
Mr Pornpetch, who is the Supreme Court chief judge, said a member of the Privy Council telephoned him, saying the Privy Council felt uncomfortable with it and did not want the protection afforded by the amendment.
Mr Pornpetch said he then decided to withdraw the bill for revision.
He declined to unveil the name of the Privy Council member who rang up.
The proposed bill aimed to protect privy councillors and representatives appointed by His Majesty the King from defamation, insults or threats.
A source at the NLA said the bill would be revised and returned to the legislative body without the proposed provisions extending protection to members of the Privy Council and representatives appointed by the King.
Protection for Their Majesties’ children would remain in the proposed amendments, the source said.
The current Criminal Code covers only Their Majesties, the heir to the throne and the regent.
The bill was seen as an attempt to protect privy councillors in light of incidents involving the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship of Thailand (UDDT), which launched scathing verbal attacks on Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda during its anti-coup protests.
Six of their leaders were arrested after they led a demonstration that culminated in violent clashes in front of Gen Prem’s residence in Si Sao Thewes in July.
The same source said that another proposed bill to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to restrict media coverage of lese majeste cases would also be dropped.
The amendment aimed to empower the court to prohibit all kinds of media from making public the information in lese majeste cases and expressing criticism and opinions about them while the investigation, the hearing and the trial of people charged with offences against the King, the Queen, the heir to the throne or the regent were in progress.
COMMENT: In the end, the new amendments are really much of the same and they likely be no fuss. What possessed the 64 NLA members to propose the amendments?
The article continues:
The NLA members representing the media have come under fierce criticism for backing the bill to bar the media from covering lese majeste cases.
Among them are former Thai Journalists Association president Phattara Khampitak, Samran Rodpetch, and Kamnoon Sitthisman.
Supinya Klangnarong, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said it was shocking to find that these veteran media professionals supported the idea of passing a law that would curb the freedom of the media.
The bill, if passed, would plunge media freedoms in Thailand to their lowest level ever, she added.
“The powerful defamation law poses enough limitation to the media’s work. Now the NLA is proposing another restriction by allowing investigators, the prosecution, or the plaintiff to seek a court order to ban media coverage of a lese majeste case,” she said.
But Mr Phattara played down the concerns, saying that the proposed amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code on media coverage was not a restriction on media freedom as critics understood.
“The media can still report lese majeste cases as usual.
“The ban on media coverage will be imposed only when the court sees that the case has been abused for ill-intent,” he said.
Current news coverage of lese majeste cases was limited because the media had been very careful in handling such cases for fear of causing damage to the parties involved or interrupting the legal process.
So imposing such a law should not have any impact on the media’s work, Mr Phattara said.
COMMENT: Has Phattara read the amendment? As a Thai Post article reported on the basis for the amendment and that was to ban criticism or opinions which have an effect on the institution (การวิพากษ์วิจารณ์หรือแสดงความเห็นในสื่อสาธารณะอันจะกระทบกระเทือนต่อสถาบัน). The court would consider whether there are necessary reasons to protect institution (มีเหตุอันสมควรเพื่อการคุ้มครองปกป้องสถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์). There is no requirement for ill-intent or to prevent an abuse of process.
These are bills relating to the extremely sensitive issue of lese majeste in Thai society. Had they not been withdrawn at the last minute, they would have been considered by an unelected legislature appointed by a military junta that took power on Sept 19 last year.
The NLA has no right to consider these bills!
The fact that prominent media representatives are sponsoring the bills is simply outrageous!
There has been no public hearing or debate on the contents of the two bills, which clearly infringe upon the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed in our new constitution.
Media reporting and commentary on the bills has been muted due to the reluctance of our media to engage with politically sensitive issues.
Already Thailand has one of the most severe lese majeste laws in the world. The penalties for infringement against the King were increased to a maximum prison sentence of 15 years by Order No. 41 of the military junta which took over the country after the bloody killings of Oct 6, 1976.
The need to resort to such a severe law in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population revere the monarchy, is questionable. People who insult the monarchy are likely to face widespread social condemnation without any need to resort to criminal proceedings.
In democratic countries such as the United Kingdom and Norway, such laws exist but are very rarely utilised.
The problem with our lese majeste law is that it has become a weapon used by powerful political forces to discredit their opponents, and by high-ranking government officials to bring charges against their competitors on the promotion ladder.
His Majesty the King, in his 2005 birthday speech, indicated that indiscriminate use of the lese majeste law could be damaging to the Monarchy and had required him to intervene on a number of occasions.
The problem is that the wide interpretation of the law prevents legitimate democratic debate on the role of the Monarchy in Thai society and legitimate comments on the actions and speeches of members of the Royal Family.
Already the lid clamped on such discussions is building up pressure in Thai society.
The first bill seems designed to stifle all criticisms against General Prem Tinsulanonda by anti-coup or pro-Thaksin groups who believe that Gen Prem was involved in the Sept 19 coup.
It also has the apparent effect of raising the status of privy councillors to the ranks of royalty. Is this really wise?
Whether the accusations are correct or not, Gen Prem is a public figure who is a legitimate target for political opinions, particularly considering the fact that he himself has made many comments on political issues during the past two years, as can be seen on his official website.
He is already protected from defamation by criminal law.
The second bill is most dangerous to civil rights in that it would expose defendants in lese majeste cases to very possible abuse by authorities, since the public could be prevented from being informed of their cases and even of their identities.
In the long run both bills, if they have a way of coming up on the table again, could have the very opposite effect to their stated intentions, causing both damage to the Monarchy and to the Thai justice system, not to mention the effects on our democracy.
COMMENT: He doesn’t mince words now does he? I generally agree with him too. The lese majeste laws are bad enough now, but would have been made far worse if the amendments had taken place. The proposed amendments would have made Privy Councillors untouchable. There are no defences for lese majeste, but truth is a defence for defamation.
The point, however, is that lawmakers should still stop the debate immediately and leave the issue for an elected Parliament. First of all, it should be made clear that opposing lese majeste laws or their extension is in no way tantamount to disrespecting the Royal Family. As a constitutional monarchy, Thailand upholds His Majesty in a position of extreme reverence and the lese majeste laws are in place to punish those who criticise the King. Still, lese majeste laws have problems, largely because anyone can file a lawsuit accusing someone of insulting His Majesty. As many legal scholars have noted, lese majeste charges in Thailand are often used to discredit or silence a political opponent instead of genuinely seeking to protect the monarchy.
David Streckfuss, a Southeast Asia scholar who did a PhD on lese majeste and defamation in Thailand for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote recently: ”Somehow, Thai society has dead-ended itself, unable to go forward or back, unable to even address the extremely problematic nature of this law. Thai society has narrowed its options, leaving a single unavoidable logic of suppression: the law protects the monarchy. Anyone who questions the law must not care about protecting the monarchy. Such a person must be disloyal to the monarchy, and must be suppressed.”
His Majesty the King has signalled that the lese majeste law troubles him. In his annual birthday speech in 2005, the King said: ”Actually, there should be criticism. And I am not afraid if someone criticises and points out to me where I went wrong. Because then I will know. If you say the King cannot be criticised, it means the King is not human.”
His Majesty went on to indicate that when people are jailed for lese majeste, he was ”in trouble” and had to pardon them. Given the King’s own words and example, as well as the troubling application of the current lese majeste law, it seems inappropriate for the government to consider extending the law further.
COMMENT: We are in weird times now.
The Nation has just published an excellent op-ed from Thongchai Winichakul. It is worth reading in its entirety so I will just leave you with his conclusion:
In the end, if the amendment bill is passed, the revised lese majeste law will certainly increase the number of violations, the number of political cheap shots. Similarly, the number of court cases will put the monarchical institution in the spotlights even more. It will result in special privileges for many people, including non-royals, who act above the public interests and who do not deserve special protection above the law.
Yet they cannot be punished, even when they do harm to the monarchy.
Lessons from all over the world suggest how such unusual privileges eventually led to public dissatisfaction and turmoil.
The lese majeste law has done more harm than good to the monarchy. The amended one would do even more harm.
The proposed amendment is reckless. Despite its withdrawal, the idea and effort behind it should be condemned.
We must not let it be revived again.
COMMENT: Strong words.