A candle for free speech

A candle for free speech

A pair of recent and seemingly unconnected events must give hope that there is a path on which to resume progress toward democracy. Chief constitution writer Meechai Ruchupan backed away from demands that the new charter should "reform" the media. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court emphatically confirmed the acquittal of red shirt icon Jatuporn Prompan on blatantly political charges by Suthep Thaugsuban, who was the nation's deputy prime minister when he launched his doomed lawsuit.

On the surface, these two proceedings have little or nothing to do with each other. But each indicates signs of the necessary attributes that should make up a democracy in Thailand. That can be wrapped up in a phrase: freedom of speech comes in many forms. It can include the literal meaning of speaking one's mind, reasonably and without fear of official interference, intimidation or worse.

Freedom of the press is an automatic adjunct to freedom of speech. Without it, neither exists. A media that is owned, controlled, directed or threatened by a government is, by definition, not free. This was recognised last month by Mr Meechai. He had come under pressure to include "media reform" in his charter. This sinister phrase means many things to powerful people. The media, however, can never attain the goal to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" if the state instructs it how to proceed.

In a democratic nation, government and press are not enemies. But neither can they be friends. The government has multiple media outlets of its own. It also has built-in secrecy and national security laws, its has ministries dedicated to putting positive spin on every action. The job of a free, responsible media is to monitor all of these and more, to make them accountable to the nation's true power, its people.

If Mr Meechai's decision to instruct the media to "go and reform yourselves", last week's Supreme Court verdict in Mr Suthep's ill-considered lawsuit was proof that justice can prevail. The background is simple. It occurred during the 2009 red-shirt protests against the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, long before they became violent. Mr Suthep was Mr Abhisit's first deputy prime minister in charge of security. There was no love lost between Mr Suthep and Mr Jatuporn.

Early on, long before the protests became violent, Mr Suthep told the media he had heard the red shirts had hired migrant workers to join the protests. Mr Jatuporn responded in kind, claiming Mr Suthep had hired 5,000 migrants to mingle with the demonstrators. He said they were under orders to incite violence, set fire to images of the King, and then claim the red shirts had told them to do this. Mr Suthep, instead of laughing off the charge, resorted to the criminal defamation law.

The process lasted seven years. Mr Suthep lost at every court level -- the Criminal Court in 2011, the Appeal Court two years later and, then, last week in the Supreme Court. The case was so one-sided it seemed Mr Suthep must be continuously appealing for reasons other than feeling actual harm.

Mr Meechai's refusal to order press "reform" has immediate effect. It calls attention to the need for the media to continually monitor itself for the many flaws inherent in the system, and work to correct them. The Supreme Court's decision should put the spotlight on the serial abuse of the criminal defamation law. It is used too often by politicians and the powerful to punish those who only are using their right to free speech. Considered together, these two actions provide an optimistic outlook for the chances of a post-junta future featuring truly free speech.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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