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Thursday, 7 February 2013

Thailand’s lèse majesté laws - When Freedom of Expression meets the Middle Way

Tom Tuohy Feb 8, 2013 

Op Ed

By now, most people will have heard about Thailand’s newest inmate Somyot Prueksakasemsuk - who was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for breaking Thailand’s infamous lèse majesté laws. 

Photo taken in Chiang Mai's busy Walking Street

The usual discussions and criticisms have of course taken place among Thailand’s chattering classes and further afield as could be reasonably expected. Perhaps the most voluble of these has been the verbal onslaught from the former Reuters’ journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall. His attack on the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) has, to some degree, shifted the debate about this draconian law, from the actual unfairness of this law per se, to whether the FCCT is actually upholding its own charter and protecting the very notion of freedom of speech in the country.

The FCCT’s own charter or mission statement is clearly stated on its website. It even has its own heading – 
“Press Freedom”:

“For more than 50 years, the FCCT has played a vanguard role as the ASEAN region's most active press club. The Club advocates press freedom as a cornerstone of civil society in emerging democracies and is a vital venue for an open exchange of information.”

The key word for me here is “advocates” which suggests some kind of action. After all, one cannot be an advocate if one does not share that idea with others. Marshall’s suggestion – no, that’s far too subtle – Marshall’s verbal onslaught, seething, acidic polemic, his go-for-the-jugular approach, while true on many levels, does little to encourage journalists, whether foreign or indigenous Thai, to attempt to address the problem or even foster further debate. Rather it is divisive when it could have been inclusive; excessively critical instead of attempting to find common ground; one man’s two-finger salute to an organisation that, while it may have its faults, does a lot to promote the values of journalism within the region.

Asian political analyst and co-founder of New Mandala Andrew Walker is completely right when he says of this, “I can understand Marshall’s frustration, even anger, about the FCCT’s position in relation to Somyot’s imprisonment. But I am disturbed by his fundamentalism which assumes that there is only one morally desirable approach to be taken to the extraordinarily difficult lèse majesté issue. In his polemic there is no room for self-doubt; no room for respectfully considering the tactical judgments that others make; and no acceptance of the range of opinions that exist about lèse majesté. To assume that there is only one effective, or morally desirable way, of tackling a problem as politically complex as Thailand’s royalist repression is extraordinarily naïve.”

So, who is right? Marshall does at least acknowledge that there are “plenty of courageous and principled foreign journalists covering Thailand”. However, is the FCCT, as Marshall states, also an organization full of “feckless” foreign journalists who fail to do the job they are there to do, instead preferring to pamper to the well heeled masses?

“Unfortunately, their good work is undermined by a feckless majority who refuse to stand up to censorship, and a vocal minority of longtime FCCT members who unashamedly peddle palace propaganda.”

These are pretty strong words and leave little in the way of scope for discussion or wiggle room. The journalists Marshall criticises in his article are some well known names: Nicholas Grossman, Dominic Faulder, Julian Gearing, Paul Wedel, Richard Ehrlich, Robert Horn, Joe Cummings and Robert Woodrow. He also cites the following: “A stunningly obsequious story in November 2011 by veteran Associated Press correspondent Denis Gray also deserves a special mention in the hall of shame.”  

The opposing view is that the FCCT has taken the correct line and, in very Buddhist fashion, decided to wait it out by treading the Middle Way. We all know that the longer you stay in Thailand, the more you are inclined to become, to some degree, assimilated into thinking and acting in much the same way as the locals. Could it be then that many of the feckless reporters Marshall mentions have gone over to the dark side? Could it be that the long years they have lived in the Kingdom have rendered them quasi-Thai, incapable of attacking this law head on in the way that Marshall wants them to? Marshall, however, is clear this is not something they can get away with doing:

“This is not an issue on which journalists can quietly retreat to the ‘middle ground’”.

It’s interesting to wonder what purpose it would serve if, as Marshall wants, many of these journalists did in fact speak out about the lèse majesté laws and Article 112 which forms its basis in legal terms? While, as he rightly says, it’s not illegal to actually speak out about them, in my view, it is inevitable that far more journalists would end up in the clinker no doubt sharing stories and hunks of dried bread with Somyot Prueksakasemsuk and his ilk. What good would that do? Would it be enough to put pressure on the powers-that-be to rescind the said law? One doubts it very much.

As a freelance journalist who regularly reports on Thai education issues for a London based newspaper, I am not sure that Marshall’s attack on his fellow journalists is fully justified or conducive to furthering the debate. As Andrew Walker has said above, the laws on this underpin an extraordinarily difficult lèse majesté issue. The jury’s still out on whether Marshall or the FCCT is right in their approach to this issue. 

Again, Andrew Walker hits the right tone when he says:

“I completely support critical commentary on journalists’ coverage of Thai politics and the monarchy. But I don’t support the fundamentalist vilification of journalists – especially a fine journalist like Nirmal Ghosh – because they have different opinions, or have made different judgments about the path to political reform.”
Only time will tell who is right.

Tom Tuohy is a teacher and writer. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and websites including: The Guardian Weekly, the English Language Gazette,, The Bangkok Post. You can access Tom's blog here.

Tom is also the author of Watching the Thais which is available in print, on the Kindle, and as an ebook.
(This article was originally published in the Chiang Mai City news, February 8th, 2013 -

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