On Tuesday, 300 citizens travelled 200km from Prachuap Khiri Khan province to rally in front of the Appeal Court and demand transparency in the case of environmental activist Charoen Wat-aksorn, who was assassinated on June 21, 2004. Meanwhile, hundreds of red shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship members were holding their own rally in front of the Constitution Court, part of a campaign to gather at least 20,000 names for a petition asking the National Anti-Corruption Commission to clear the entire court bench of nine judges.
These are just the two latest incidents of citizens expressing outrage against the judiciary.
It is no secret that the Thai judicial system suffers from a poor image. In Thailand's ongoing political struggle, the judiciary has been accused of being an instrument of the establishment and powerful individuals that is rife with corruption and inefficient.
Regardless of whether these accusations are true, such perceptions directly affect the dignity, integrity and authority of the judiciary.
Last Sunday we discussed the weakness of the Thai parliament, which includes the executive branch as the prime minister is also an MP.
The parliament's dignity, integrity and authority are questioned by the people because of its weakness in standing up for democratic principles, and its tendency to be both self-serving and to be used as a tool of powerful individuals and forces. A healthy democracy needs strong executive and legislative branches that are viewed by the people as trustworthy and just. The same is true of the judiciary.
The reality, however, is that the Thai justice system is battered and bruised in the eyes of the people.
One thing that can be done to change this is to reform Section 198 of the Thai Penal Code. The law says anyone who insults the court or a judge during a trial or the adjudication of a case or obstructs one of these proceedings shall be subject to a term of imprisonment of one to seven years, a fine of 2,000 to 14,000 baht, or both.
Similar to Section 112 - the lese majeste law - Section 198 is subject to interpretation regarding what constitutes an "insult". And while Section 198 doesn't have the same impact on the Thai consciousness as Section 112, in principle it is not conducive to the democratic progress.
When court trials are held behind closed doors and legal verdicts are protected from criticism through the threat of incarceration, there can be no transparency nor accountability. How then can the judicial system be trusted?
Furthermore, Section 198 acts as a threat against public participation, as it prevents the public from freely discussing legal verdicts in mainstream channels - or at least minimises the possibilities for debate. While it must be recognised that discussions, criticisms and downright insults make their way through other channels, the law should encourage such public participation, rather than forcing it to go underground.
Transparency, accountability and public participation - these are crucial to the judicial process as well as to democratic progress. They put a check on court "irregularities". Otherwise, the justice system is based on power and control gained by promoting ignorance and instilling fear. Consequently, this gives a small group of people a monopoly over the law.
While the public may participate in legislation through elections, demonstrations, petitions and lobbying, it has been denied the right to make sure the law is interpreted and judged fairly.
This is not to accuse any judge or the judiciary in general of unfairness, but merely to suggest that transparency, accountability and public participation can foster public trust and respect for the judiciary.
Consider this radical proposition: "Court TV".
If the televised court hearings of the International Court of Justice presiding over the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the 4.6 square kilometre area surrounding Preah Vihear temple have taught us anything, it's that local cable operators should launch such a series.
"Court TV". It has plot twists and dramatic turns, heroes and villains. It features a battle of strategies, pitting cleverly attained evidence against convincing testimony, all highlighted by colourful characters and conspiracy theories. It has sex and violence, lies and treachery, and best of all, the ending is not scripted - well, it's not supposed to be anyway.
Forget struggling singers and a panda, forget talent shows of the mostly talentless, the best reality TV this side of Keeping Up with the Kardashians could be "Court TV". Not only would it be great entertainment, it would be educational.
The audience gets to learn about the law, legal procedures and courtroom tactics. In today's world, people don't have the time nor the will to learn from textbooks.
But put it on TV, then we are glued in. Miss an episode? Catch it on YouTube. The law is central to any society, a reality TV channel devoted to the court and the law is not just great entertainment, it's also education on the cutting edge.
It's also good business. The United States' cable Court TV station was founded in 1991, devoted to explaining the law to the layperson. It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week of trials and legal analysis.
Within two years, the network was ranked fourth in the Nielsen Company's daytime cable ratings. In 2008, it changed its name to TruTV and features a wide range of programmes, both reality and scripted, all devoted to explaining the legal system. It's a big business and a lucrative business.
Not only is it entertaining, educational and profitable, it's good for democracy. Televise a court trial for the entire nation to watch - that's transparency and accountability, freedom of information and public participation.
Entertaining, educational, profitable and good for democracy - could there be any argument against it? Of course there is. Information is power. To share information is to lose power and to lose power is to lose control.
But if we want democratic progress and not democratic regression, here is where the judiciary can be reformed towards transparency, accountability and public participation.
Here is where the public can learn and understand the law of the land as its shareholders and stakeholders. In this way, the public may learn to respect the integrity, dignity and authority of the law.
It is no secret that collectively the Thai people are not fans of the rule of law, that bending, breaking, bribing, cutting corners and the like are a part of everyday culture. Perhaps if we open the door wider and allow for transparency, accountability and public participation, then the public may learn to appreciate the importance of the rule of law.
We can watch the parliament in action, why not the court?
But of course, we might be getting a little ahead of ourselves here with "Court TV".
Before that day comes we can start by reforming the system and Section 198. Of course, in any organisation or society there can never be a complete absence of corruption, inefficiency or unseen powers pulling strings.
But for a start, a transparent and accountable process checked by public participation would go a long way toward minimising "irregularities" and fostering trust and respect between the public and the judiciary, thereby aiding democratic progress. Then the police would be trapped in a democratic sandwich between the judiciary and the people, thereby initiating needed police reforms.
Meanwhile, the most immediate way the judiciary can prove its dignity, integrity and authority is to oversee the cases of all colour-coded protesters, along with any other individuals and parties involved, in a just and fair manner.
But to "prove" it, the justice must also be transparent and accountable, and allow for public participation.
This may not win the court any new friends in the short term, given the sensitive political and social climate, but democratic progress is a long journey that has to start somewhere.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at email@example.com
About the author
- Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator