The absence of copies The Economist magazine at Thai news vendors this week is evidence of the extent to which media are cowed by the country’s lèse majesté laws – even when those laws are neither applicable nor being applied.
Siam Intelligence Unit reports that the February 5 edition of the UK-based weekly has been held back from retailers on the grounds that it “contains content not suitable for Thailand”.
According to Prachatai.com, “Since December 2008 at least 6 editions of the magazine … have been either officially banned by the Thai police or subject to self-censorship by the distributor.”
This week’s Economist contains an article titled “Thailand’s monarchy: when more is less“. In it the author muses on the ongoing trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn on lèse majesté and related computer crime charges, and suggests that these laws “are now deployed with ferocious frequency – more for political gain than to protect the monarchy”.
Chiranuch is on trial because her website hosted user comments – not written by her – that allegedly broke article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code by “defaming, insulting, or threatening” the royal family.
The Economist article contains nothing that remotely fits this definition. Its focus is the implementation of law, not the institution of the monarchy. The article does mention the king in an anecdote, but only to suggest, as has been widely reported, that Bhumibol does not want lèse-majesté laws to be misused. An admirable sentiment.
What the article does criticise is the current Thai government. It quotes academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun’s essay last year in which Pavin argues that lèse majesté “has been exploited to hide the ugly reality of Thai politics, from the suppression of the opposition and the media to obstructing Thailand’s long-delayed democratisation”.
Is this the reason why the magazine was refused distribution? Could an official have really instructed the distributor to withhold the magazine on the grounds that it said something that insulted the government? I think this is unlikely, but not out of the question. Many observers believe that the current high-profile trial of Chiranuch is something of an embarrassment to the regime and that her arrest was probably the act of an overenthusiastic middle-ranking official, rather than a deliberate manifestation of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s policy. The chain of command is never without bad links.
Or could the reason for the suppression be that merely criticising lèse majesté law is somehow an act of lèse majesté? At the Chiranuch trial this week, the ministry of information’s Aree Jivorarak was asked if any reference to the monarchy was now considered to be demeaning to it. But this is a reductio ad absurdum argument – and the government would be fools to invite such absurdity.
The answer is probably more mundane, but just as disturbing. Chiranuch’s trial has gone almost unreported in the mainstream media. And yet no one is being told not to discuss it. The industry was already terrified of saying the wrong thing. Now, Chiranuch’s arrest has made them terrified of even playing host to, or referring to, the wrong thing being said. So they overcompensate, and self-censor when censorship is not necessary.