Freedom of Speech and Democracy
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Freedom of Speech and Democracy

Every weekend, the Bangkok Post translates a couple of op-ed pieces/columns from the Thai language media. Usually they are from Matichon and Thai Rath.* One column I intended to translate this weekend was written by Chartnarong Visuitakul,** but fortunately, the Bangkok Post saved me the trouble by summarising it here. The headline is, wait for it, “Who says Thailand is not democratic?” (ใครว่าประเทศไทย ไม่เป็นประชาธิปไตย). The original Thai language column in Matichon, via Sanook, was published on August 30.
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/>Excerpted below is the Bangkok Post’s summary and one excerpt from the original Thai language in square brackets, just after the summarised version so those who can read Thai can see whether it was summarised correctly.
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He then tried to explain to his Chinese friends that regardless of the portrayal of Thailand as undemocratic and militarily-governed in reports of the foreign press, the facts spoke otherwise. The present regime allows more press freedom than the previous government led by Thaksin Shinawatra. [จึงพยายามอธิบายให้เขาฟังว่า ถึงแม้ว่าประเทศไทยในเวลานี้จะไม่เป็นประชาธิปไตยในสายตาของต่างชาติ แต่เชื่อไหมว่า เรามีสิทธิมีเสียง สามารถแสดงความคิดเห็นกันได้อย่างล้นเหลือมากกว่าช่วงก่อนวันที่ 19 กันยายนปีที่แล้วเสียด้วยซ้ำ]
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/>When the press dared to criticise the government, they were slapped with several lawsuits. Any TV and radio programmes that dared to criticise the government would soon find themselves off the air. Any academic who dared to utter any critical comment, would be harassed and threatened.
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/>In contrast, the CNS and the interim government allowed the UDD to stage a protest to condemn the military government and the CNS, in Sanam Luang daily, without ever facing any arrest. The government’s own TV stations could air programmes critical of the Surayud government. If Thailand is really under military dictatorship, could all these things happen?
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/>Chartnarong replied that it was Thai-style military dictatorship where the Thai people have freedom to express opinions even to the point of condemning their own government with no fear of ever facing any adverse consequence.
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COMMENT: The headline is not just some sub-editor or editor trying to stir things up as it is the writer’s central theme that Thailand is democratic and there is now greater freedom of speech under the Surayud government than under the Thaksin government.
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/>Let me answer his question on who says Thailand is not democratic because I am one person who says that. Thailand was democratic before the coup last year, but until there are elections you can’t call Thailand democratic. Surely, the most fundamental criteria for a country to be considered a democracy is an election! But for those academic columnists in the anti-Thaksin Matichon who live in fairyland there is no need for an election, we can just have have the coup and military government, but this is still democracy. Well, if you don’t believe me that Thailand is not democratic, do you believe Freedom House’s ranking of political rights in Thailand?
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/>On freedom of speech, I am a little bemused to read the writer claim that those who criticise the government suffer no consequences and open criticism is allowed. Freedom of speech is not better under the military installed Surayud government, it is in fact much worse. Freedom House reports the same in their latest 2007 report with civil liberties, including specifically freedom of speech, declining.
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/>The new government has taken censorship to a level to that of Thaksin. The censorship started just after the coup when the government called all the press in to tell them the new rules which would apply. Key quote:
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(In addition, for radio stations if they receive telephone calls [like talkback radio] expressing opinions the program must avoid the expressing of political opinions. If there are any telephone interviews on politics, the CDRM may need to see the the questions beforehand)

/>COMMENT: This could all be enforced under martial law which gives the military absolute power to censor. I don’t remember Thaksin declaring martial law in Bangkok and hauling in the media like this – yes, things were far from perfect under Thaksin, but are they really better now? After the coup, the military also sent soldiers to TV stations and the print media – see here for some pics. Other Thai TV channels mentioned on the air that there were soldiers in the studio as if they were hinting that they were not free to report on all matters.
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/>Then, a month after the coup:
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“In the past we used to employ self-censorship. Now we can’t even try to investigate the junta and its government like we used to under an elected administration. We’ve been cordoned off by the military,” said Suwanna, adding that soldiers are still occupying Channel 11 where she works.

“We feel suffocated. We don’t understand why the military still have to camp out at the office. We don’t know who to ask and everyone automatically accepts it that the military has become part of our lives.”

/>In January, Gen. Winai of the CNS stated:
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“I want to ask every television channel and every radio station not to broadcast messages or statements of the former prime minister and leaders of the past ruling party,” General Winai Phattiyakul told a gathering of 100 media representatives.

If they don’t listen, you can kick them out of your station or if you can’t use your judgement, I will use mine to help you run your station,” Winai said.

It was the first time the generals have issued a censorship order since they ousted Thaksin in a bloodless Sept. 19 coup, accusing him of rampant corruption, charges he denies.

/>COMMENT: So in this environment, is there really open criticism of the government without any consequences?
/>You have the odd situation of when TV channels, like CNN and BBC, then show pictures of Thaksin or report on Thaksin that these pictures/reports are then blocked. The government then claims this is not their doing, but then claim that this was taken by UBC [the local cable TV provider] “at its own initiative” (source – PDF). Umm, you threaten the TV channels and then when they obey your orders, you claim ignorance.
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/>In January, Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) reported that censorship of websites was up 500% since the coup. No doubt some of those websites would have been banned if Thaksin was PM or in a future civilian government, but surely the sheer number of websites censored suggests that open criticism of the government is not allowed as FACT reports:
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Currently Midnight University has the only website in Thailand protected under Thai law by an Administrative Court restraining order pending their lawsuit. It should be noted that it is hardly unusual for such cases to take well over a decade to be decided by Thai courts.
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/>In the wake of September 19, many Thai Web discussion boards and other fora were blocked or ordered to self-censor, stifling freedom of expression and freedom of association. 19sep.org, a site critical of the Thailand’s coup, has been added to MICT’s blocklist for the sixth time.
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/>MICT’s blocklist shows a frightening increase in thought control and abrogation of civil liberties and human rights in Thailand. Although website censorship was initiated under the deposed Thai Rak Thai government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the new military government of Thailand has taken all of us to a new dimension of repression.

/>The Nation‘s Subhatra Bhumiprabhas writing in Prachatai states:
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The fact that the junta sent armed troops to watch over TV stations in the eve of the judgment day May 30, went by with the Thai media’s sound of silence.
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/>Eerily silent
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/>There was only a statement by the September 19 Network against Coup d’etat condemning the threat to the media
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/>The media organizations and the media itself was nonchalant with the incident, and there was almost no report on newpapers. This is not the first time that the media turns a bind eye on the junta’s threat. Since the September 19 coup last year, the junta and its installed govenment have repeatedly interfered and threatened the media and people’s communications in various forms: closing down hundreds of community radios, censoring certain individuals and broadcast programs, shutting down websites, summoning editors to seek ‘cooperation’, as well as threatening many foreign news agencies.
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/>However, the junta’s attempts have been given sound cooperation by the media. There has yet to be any protest against the ‘threat to the media’. Sometimes, the media even helps the junta oppose dissenting media.

/>COMMENT: Subhatra contrasts the situation with that in Thaksin when the media were up in arms over Thaksin’s efforts on blocking criticism whereas now the media silent. Have they chosen to be silent? Or have they been threatened into submission? Either way, it is not good.
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/>Who else to choose from? Well, what about Supinya Klangnarong, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform who recently stated:
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“The media environment is not better than under Thaksin; it’s worse,” said Supinya, who suffered first-hand when Thaksin’s Shin Corp leveled a 400-million-baht libel lawsuit against her — a case she eventually won.
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/>“Thaksin tried to control things too much, but we were able to fight back,” she said. “But under this government when you try to fight back they say you don’t love the nation, don’t love the king, and you are a bad person. They scare people from upholding these rights, which deeply affects the country’s democracy.

/>COMMENT: You will note her legal troubles with Thaksin yet she still thinks the current government is worse. Here is an another example:
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Several TITV employees yesterday lodged a complaint with the Thai Broadcast Journalists’ Association against “government officials” dictating to them not to produce any news reports that ran counter to government policies.

The statement said government officials attended every news briefing to make sure no news content conflicted with the government’s interests.
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/>The officials threatened to use “drastic measures” against TITV if their orders to carry “one-sided” messages on news programmes were not followed, the TITV workers said.
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/>Janthima Cheuysa-nguan, a deputy director-general of the Public Relations Department, which now oversees TITV, said TITV had been instructed to produce content “that was useful to the public” and to “avoid causing social conflicts that would lead to differing opinions that could potentially result in violent acts” through its coverage and reports.

She said TITV had aired a programme during which a caller expressed anger with a law that had been passed.

“People could easily have misunderstood the [legislative] process or content of that law if they had no legal knowledge,” she said.
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COMMENT: That of course wasn’t the first time iTV/TITV had found itself in trouble. After the coup last year, after publishing a letter on air, the military responded by sending 20 additional soldiers to the station. Hardly a sign that open criticism of the government was being allowed.
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/>Commenting on the government financed “information” campaigns, where academics have been “financed” (brought ?) to criticise Thaksin – see here and here, a Bangkok Post editorial states:
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The propaganda plan, now in tatters, was exposed and ridiculed in the exact media that the military planned to subvert. But while Thai newspapers and many websites have uncovered the basic plan, it should be noted that the CNS also was specifically targetting broadcast media as an outlet for their information campaign against Mr Thaksin and his cronies. That branch of media remains under military control that is tighter than at any time in the past 15 years.
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/>COMMENT: Tighter than at any time in the past 15 years? That would, of course, mean tighter than when Thaksin was PM.
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/>Finally, the most obvious example of someone suffering the consequences when criticising the government is Sombat Boon-ngam-anong, a critic of the coup. Recently, in the middle of speech he was detained and taken to an army base and threatened with the death penalty. He is now in jail after Gen. Saprang sued him for defamation.*** As noted here, even the 1991 coup leaders didn’t go after their critics.
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/>I’ll repeat again, do you really believe that open criticism is allowed of this government? And that critics suffer no consequences?
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/>*Well, I guess they aren’t going to promote The Nation‘s sister Thai language publication Kom Chad Luek so it is no surprising.
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/>** He is listed as an academic at the Faculty of Communication Arts at Turakit Bundit although he is currently working in Beijing.
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/>*** What you ask? Where is The Nation or the Bangkok Post on this? Well, it is rare you find mention of this in the English language media in Thailand (ELMT)