A little taste of freedom
Two tiny steps last week showed that the hopes for freedom of expression will not be easily extinguished. Each took place in a courtroom. In Bangkok, the Administrative Court allowed Peace TV back on air, and agreed to study the claim by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) that it has the right to censor the content of media broadcasts. In Phuket, prosecutors failed to show up for two of the three days of the navy's defamation lawsuit against local journalists. Apparently they share the public's distaste for this trial.
One must not over-estimate these two events. There is still strong opposition to a free press in Thailand. The military regime continues to remind the country and the media that "there are limits" to free expression. The draft of the new constitution contains the harshest limitations on speech since the last days of the serial military dictators in 1973. But what has just happened in the courts shows a prevailing mood that favours freedom of speech over the current regime's restrictions.
The Administrative Court's decision to allow Peace TV back on air is welcome on several levels. The first, as the court's injunction states, is that even government censors must be open and clear before they muzzle any media outlet. When Peace TV was cut off from its satellite feed in late April, authorities only said vaguely that the red-shirt media outlet was causing a division in society. They refused to give a specific reason or example.
Second is the channel of censorship. Peace TV was banned by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission. The NBTC was established as a broadcasting regulator, and continues that role. Its task is to manage the airwaves to ensure they are used in the public interest. Nothing in its charter or, indeed, in its work schedule, makes it capable of monitoring, let alone judging, broadcast content.
The Administrative Court intends to pursue just this point in the coming days. Its decision to let Peace TV back on the air is a temporary one, subject to reversal if the NBTC is confirmed as having the power to censor. It should be noted that the current military regime refused to get involved in the Peace TV controversy. So the station never was accused by a competent or legal authority, and the court has decided the NBTC's order to shut it down might have been illegal.
The sad and ill-considered lawsuit by the Royal Thai Navy is now in the hands of the Phuket Provincial Court. This defamation case against the Phuketwan news website deserves to be remembered as a lawsuit that never should have been launched. As the court considers the legal merits, the public and even court officers wonder what the navy was thinking. The two-person news outlet has clearly won sympathy. Prosecutors charged with pursuing the navy's case did not show up when defence witnesses testified on Thursday and Friday.
The new constitution's section on press freedom is disappointing, but right in sync with the regime's insistence that rights are granted conditionally. Section 42 promises freedom of speech and writing. It then immediately adds a long paragraph explaining many ways the state can cut off this basic right. They include the very strange condition of an opinion that causes "deterioration of the mind or health of the public".
No law is needed to protect those who speak for the majority. Peace TV and Phuketwan have both suffered for presenting opinions outside the mainstream. It's incumbent upon the laws and courts to protect such expression.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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