Free speech tied in lese majeste knot

Free speech tied in lese majeste knot

It’s great news that The Guardian and the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize. As citizens of the world, we congratulate the papers, or actually that 21st century Deep Throat Edward Snowden, for exposing the US National Security Agency’s creepy tentacles of unlawful surveillance. It’s great that Mr Snowden gambled it all and it’s great that journalism can still rock, or at least embarrass, an almighty government accustomed to impunity.

What’s not great, post-Pulitzer, is that Mr Snowden is still in hiding, probably having to watch his back for the rest of his life, and branded as a security threat to his own country. Talkers are betrayers, Pulitzer or not. The cost of free speech is paid for, ironically, only by freedom itself.

It’s also great news that Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize. As a member of humanity, we congratulate the news agency for bringing to light the harrowing stories of the Rohingya, and for pushing us to ask how our civilised world could permit such barbaric persecution driven by inhumane prejudice. This one is closer to home — actually Thailand is a protagonist — and it’s great that the prize has brought the dark fate of the Rohingya back into the headlines.

What’s not great, post-Pulitzer, is that the Rohingya still suffer and their hopeless wanderings across the lonely Andaman persist.

What’s also not great is that two Phuket-based journalists, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, have been sued by the Royal Thai Navy for defamation for quoting the Pulitzer-winning report that alleged the navy’s involvement in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees. Like Mr Snowden, Morison and Chutima (but not Reuters?) are branded a security threat. Writers are betrayers, Pulitzer or not. The cost of free speech is paid for, luckily for Morison and Chutima, by bail. At least for now.

The two Phuket journalists could face up to seven years in jail if found guilty. Meanwhile the smuggling of the Rohingya continues. Those who are accustomed to impunity often decide that if anybody is going to mete out punishment, it’s them.

The Holy Grail of free speech becomes especially thorny when it comes to our own lese majeste law. The contested Section 112 of the Criminal Code has resurfaced in several weird and dreadful cases in the same week that the Pulitzer winners  brought the eternal debate on free speech back to the forefront. On Thursday, Surapong and Somjintana Amornpat filed a lese majeste charge against their own daughter, Chatwadee, who lives in London. Ms Chatwadee posted seven YouTube clips that contain sensitive comments, and her parents, who live in Bangkok, were said to have been “harassed” as a result. They decided to go to the police — turning against their own daughter, not against those who harassed them — in order to exclude themselves from the actions of Ms Chatwadee.

Last year, we were shocked enough to hear that a man sued his own brother for lese majeste. This new case has brought the labyrinth of familial enmity to a new high, or low. No doubt Ms Chatwadee’s clips are not a public service that would benefit anyone, but the charge once again demonstrates the complex knot of paranoia, intolerance and legal decapitation that Section 112 has exerted in the minds of the people.

Then there’s the case of the Wuthipong “Ko Tee” Kachathamkul, the red shirt who played truth-or-dare on camera and lost. That man is a hoodlum who’s allegedly involved in other physical crimes; to bust him for something he said is like busting Al Capone not for murder but for tax evasion. It reeks of desperation.

But as Ko Tee sings Johnny Cash’s Wanted Man all the way to Mae Sai, there’s a small piece of positive news regarding Section 112: On Thursday the Criminal Court acquitted a 65-year-old vendor who sold the legendary banned book The Devil’s Discus, which discusses the death of King Rama VIII. The court ruled that the vendor had no knowledge of the content of the book, though the existence of the book itself is against the law. A complex knot, I told you.

Which brings us back to Mr Snowden and the sinister web of surveillance. Mr Snowden wouldn’t have to work so hard had he lived in Thailand. Last week, Rianthong Nanna announced the creation of a “National Rubbish Collecting Squad” whose members will “embed themselves in every atom of society” to investigate, inform and arrest those who insult the monarchy. These people are not people but “rubbish” in Dr Rianthong’s thinking. He stressed that this isn’t a joke. No, it’s not. It’s Gestapo, it’s 1984, it’s hooliganism, and it’s the beginning of the end.

It’s also Pulitzer material, and the ultimate test if free speech still has a place right here.


Kong Rithdee is deputy Life editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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