Thai big media forced to rethink unwritten rules
With the rise of the student-led pro-democracy movement, the topic of the monarchy, which was once a taboo, now has more space in public discussion.
Social media has set a new standard of freedom of speech and a number of netizens have dared to break the tradition without fearing the harsh penalties of the lese majeste law, which could theoretically see them slapped with three to 15 years in prison.
But things have hardly changed in the Thai mainstream media which mostly applies self-censorship. Early last month, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa brought up his demand for reform of the monarchy during a Harry Potter-themed protest in Bangkok. He is the first person in over a decade to break the taboo of criticising the high institution in public on Thai soil.
His statement came so abruptly that, worried about the consequences, most mainstream media pulled the plug on their Facebook Live reporting at the demonstration. That evening, as I learned from other journalists, a debate raged in newsrooms over whether Mr Anon's speech should be put in the news. The next morning the part about the monarchy was mostly missing from reports. It was the same with the student rally on Aug 10 at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus, and the following two demonstrations, one led by the Free Youth group at the Democracy Monument six days later, the other on Sept 19-20 at Sanam Luang.
Some speakers went deep into the details of the proposed reform, such as the need for transparency in palace spending so the institution will maintain public respect.
Those who want to see other details of this sensitive issue must either watch live on the student movement's Facebook page or follow certain Twitter accounts and seek out coverage by the international media.
It's clear the Thai media is finding it difficult to adjust to this sudden change, and to convey the students' message properly. Journalists are currently embroiled in debate as to how and to what extent they can report on the topic.
In principle, these questions shouldn't need to be asked at all. Journalism must promote democracy and freedom of expression. But Thailand's unique legal and social context makes most mainstream media reluctant to adhere to this principle when reporting on news pertaining to the monarchy.
The legal scope of the lese majeste law is extremely broad and open to interpretation in terms of what constitutes defamation, insult, or threats to the royal lineage. In 2014, police accepted a complaint filed by retired army generals against Sulak Sivaraksa over comments he made about King Naresuan, a 16th-century ruler of Ayutthaya. The court later dismissed the case.
Without a clear boundary over what can be defined as a breach of the lese majeste law, it's common for newsrooms to end up in disagreement. Some don't think reporting the students' demands would cross the line while others do. The most common scenario is all the reports about this issue are cut or amount to just brief or vague mentions. This is because the stakes are high for established news organisations if they were to face lese majeste law charges. Social pressure is another factor that news organisations weigh in handling this topic.
Last week, a royalist group announced it would file a complaint against Voice TV, an online media outlet that has regularly criticised the government, for broadcasting the recent Thammasat University student rally on Facebook Live.
The staff of the Reporter, another news website, also had a live stream of the event. Though there is no criminal charge against them, just yet, they are aware of the possibility.
"After we consulted with lawyers, we are sure that reporting the student demand for reform of the monarchy is not against the law. But it's still difficult to do when considering the social context," said Thapanee Eadsrichai, a prominent journalist who founded the Reporter.
During the Harry Potter-themed protest, her team cut their Facebook Live coverage during Mr Arnon's speech because referring to the monarchy in public was a new phenomenon at the time. But after they studied the law, they decided not to censor their reports going forward.
"The student rallies are newsworthy events, and we can't avoid reporting it," she said. "For me, not reporting it is irresponsible to society. Only when the audience can hear different opinions, can society as a whole discuss and find a solution peacefully."
I could not agree more. Open and healthy discussion about the institution should be possible.
It's time for Thai media organisations to sit down and discuss a practical approach to covering the subject before their audiences lose confidence in them forever.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.