by Lisa Gardner
Concerns for fundamental rights of free expression were again raised this week in Bangkok, with news that seven articles written by esteemed Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk are now under investigation for alleged infringements of the lèse majesté law.
A regular columnist with Thailand’s conservative news agency The Nation, Pravit also writes for independent news agency Prachatai, where it was reported that:
On 16 May, Pol. Lt. Matee Sriwana, an investigator at Roi Et Police Station in northeastern Thailand, sent an e-mail to Prachatai, asking for information about Pravit’s Thai-language articles published by Prachatai.
The complaint was filed on 28 December 2011 by Mr. Wiput Suprasert, a yellow-shirt activist also from Roi Et province.
Wiput has also been responsible for filing similar lese majeste complaints against 15 Prachatai contributors. He was an active commenter at Prachatai, posting under the name “I Pad”, and claims to have been a guard at the rallies of the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
The cases Wiput filed include that against Prachatai executive director Ms Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who is accused of violations of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA) for allowing and failing to delete on time lese majeste content on the Prachatai online forums…
In addition to asking for basic information about the articles, the investigator also asked Prachatai to delete them.
As news of the investigation broke, Pravit would turn to social media to strenuously deny the allegations: “I challenge lese-majeste law,” he wrote. “(But) I don’t break the law which forbid(s) people from talking negatively about the monarchy in public.”
A CAMPAIGN OF HARASSMENT
In an interview earlier today, he would note that:
While no formal charges have been laid, but I feel threatened, and intimidated. That there is a chance that I’ll be charged, changes the way you think. It changes the dynamic. It means that the campaign of harassment has now begun.
Some of the ultra-royalists have, in their comments, already concluded that I committed lese-majeste… That I should die today, etc. That is already having an impact. It is clear from this, that the hate campaign against me – in the court of public opinion – has already begun…
(Although) when the police contacted Prachatai (news) with no details, mind you – they did not tell (them) which particular sentence, or paragraph, which is alleged to have committed lese-majeste…
I want to make it clear that… the ultra-royalists claim that until there are charges, I should not be complaining. But my argument is this: that the climate of fear began with the launching of the police complaint.
Pravit suspects that this investigation yet signifies a stronger crackdown on media figures, activists and those who might “simply raise questions”:
What might be complicated is that, at the Thai political level, there is a lot of speculation about the reconciliation between the old and the new elite… and what this means for those imprisoned under the lese-majeste law, and the plight of other prisoners of conscience today. That Prime Minister Yingluck has reiterated time and again that she would not touch the law, is a very clear indicator that there will be only harsher treatment of anyone seen as raising questions about the status of the monarchy in Thailand.
How then, might journalists maintain their independence, their objectivity and impartiality, in such a politically-fraught setting? “It’s impossible!,” he says,
…Because 99% of the mass media feed the public this one-sided, positive-only side about the Thai monarchy. I have been accused of being partial, of being biased – just by simply raising the fact that, how can people believe this kind of one-sided information? Is this a real democracy? If it is, then it should be the case that we are able to access – legally access – information that is critical about the monarchy.
But as we all know, under the lese-majeste law, all the critical and negative news about the monarchy are made illegal. Books are banned… It’s a question of freedom of expression.
It’s also to do with culture… I think that so far, Nitirat and others, have done superbly in trying to raise the issue of the law. But we also need to consider the cultural role of the monarchy, and the place of the monarchy in relation to society.
In his view, this investigation of his work yet offers further evidence of a Thai political system deeply concerned with questions of transition and political succession. Pravit emphasized that:
…One must keep in mind that we’re dealing with a Thailand in a transitional period, where we are awaiting, the political succession of the throne… That might be complicated, with the ‘old’ elite – the conservative strands… very concerned with a smooth transition of power. I don’t think they will really care about the international community’s opinion about this law. I fear there could be a harsher crackdown in order to ensure that the transition will not be challenged (or) questioned by the public or by anyone critical of the monarchy.
Sometimes its like a – a monotheism, where you want a single God, a religious dimension… of the devotion to the monarchical institution. (So too) a question of the King being a kind of ‘Father’ to all Thais, which is very important – in the Thai traditional context, you cannot criticize your parents… There are these two aspects which are not really addressed.
So when you complain, or express your concerns… There are a substantial number of Thais who also question this, on Twitter, on Facebook, etc. Yet persons who question the role of the monarchical institution are silenced by the law. We know that there are voices, but they know it is not in their best interests to speak up.
My argument is, it only takes a few ultra-royalists to make these charges… I recognize that these are the risks that we run.
While it is not yet known what will come of these complaints, one suspects that it could signify yet another serious deterioration of rights to free expression in Thailand, serving as further warning to journalists, scholars and activists alike that any such questions or queries pertaining to the increasingly prevalent use of the lese-majeste law – no less the institution of the monarchy – will not be tolerated.
Amidst the uncertainty, I ask Pravit who he reads; who his heroes are. He laughs. Among them, “Socrates, of course! He’d rather drink the hemlock.” It seems the battle has only yet begun.
Lisa Gardner is a freelance journalist and writer based in Bangkok. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk