They look like modern art, those blank spaces in the International New York Times, an emptiness in the forest of stories.
Twice this past week, the Thai printer of the newspaper whitewashed two articles by blanking out the space, first with the Tuesday report on the sagging Thai economy, then yesterday’s op-ed piece on the Crown Property Bureau.
How symbolic: As history unfolds around us in many column-inches and headlines, Thailand has chosen to live in a void. To be a ghost and to live in a black hole disguised in white wilderness.
“The article in this space was removed by our printer in Thailand. The International New York Times and its editorial staff had no role in its removal,” says the text that we have come to be familiar with.
This is a case of self-censorship, which, to be fair, is practised by most media in Thailand to varying degrees. But with the bare-faced white void applied by the local printer of the Times, the case once again shows how censorship is futile and self-deluding, because even in the mind of the censors they must know — how could they not — that everyone in Thailand and the world who wishes to read the two articles can do so by clicking on the Opinion tab on the Times website. It is easier to access those banned pieces than to go out and buy beer from your favourite Family Mart.
Once again, when something cannot be talked about in a healthy fashion in a public space, what replaces it is scarier, such as speculation, tarot cards and conspiracy theories. Sifting through a pile of rubbish to find truth is harder when that truth is kept in a dark room guarded by dragons. Well, I throw my hands up, because we’re now accustomed to this, to the dark and the dragons, and in a way we are all complicit in digging our own black hole.
Besides the blank space, which is not the Taylor Swift song but a discussion of the CPP’s wealth, there is other customary censorship news this week. University lecturers have been charged for saying the plain and indisputable truth that “universities are not military camps”; suddenly they were treated by the authorities in good old Stalinist fashion, which is to gag constructive conversation by veiled threat.
Former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, who is not a she-ro of free speech by the way, was banned from speaking to MPs of the European Parliament. I don’t think she has much to say, but to stop her from saying it — the right to speak is guaranteed by God and law — is a sign of the times we’re living in. And yet the most absurd report about an attempt to shut up people is when a group of patriots formally asked the police to investigate US Ambassador Glyn Davies after he commented on the excessive punishment of the lese majeste law. How mighty we are, next we’ll compete with the US to become the world’s policeman.
And yet not all is bad news. Against all odds (I almost weep) there is a positive sign amid the thick of our weekly censorship news: It emerged on Thursday that the ban on the film Insects in the Backyard may be reversed, and the case has brought a glimmer of light, sanity and progressive thinking in our judiciary often known for conservatism.
In 2010, the film by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit was banned by the Culture Ministry’s censor board in a contentious case, with the authority objecting to the film’s depiction of student prostitution, a father who’s a transvestite, and a three-second shot of a penis. They said the film promoted “immorality.” The Culture Minister then was Nipit Intarasombat of the Democrats, who agreed with the ban.
Following the ban, the film’s director gave us a great example: Instead of uploading the movie online, which would have been a slap in the face of the censors, she took the case to the Administrative Court, arguing for freedom of expression. On Thursday, the judge in charge of the case said that the ban should be lifted, because the film was a portrait of a troubled family and that the sexual content was not the essence. In short, the judge got it, and that’s a bigger slap in the face of those who didn’t and yet rode the high horse of morality. It also came to light that some of the members of the National Film and Video Board might not have seen the film when they passed the ruling (priceless, isn’t it?). By the way, the court’s verdict will be read on Dec 25.
The case of Insects in the Backyard is a small consolation in the week of white censorship of the Times. Or maybe its implication is bigger than we think: If an insect can’t be crushed, then humans should have hope.
We’re in this censorship battle for the long haul.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.