Lese Majeste used to target political opponents
Andrew Spooner’s article for the Asian Correspondent
Last week in Geneva, Switzerland, Thailand’s freedom of expression record came under particular scrutiny during the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
A number of recommendations flowed from this meeting, not least from Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. He urged Thailand to hold broad-based public consultations to amend section 112 of the penal code (Thailand’s infamous and draconian lese majeste law that imprisons people for up to 15 years for “defaming the monarchy”) and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act so that the country is in conformity with its international human rights obligations.
Several countries backed the call for the 112 law to be reformed, including Brazil, Indonesia and Canada, while other nations such as the UK, France and Norway asked for a space to be opened up in Thai public discourse where the future of the law could be discussed.
Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) Thailand’s key military ally and longstanding partner, the USA, chose to remain almost completely silent on the issue of lese majeste, despite the present incarceration of one of their nationals, Joe Gordon, in Thailand under 112.
One of the attending organisations in Geneva was UK-based freedom of expression advocate ARTICLE 19. Amy Sim is its Senior Programme Officer for Asia and I had a chance to catch up with her just after the review had ended and ask her a few questions about Thailand.
Q. If, as is claimed, the present incarnation of Thailand’s lese majeste (LM) law is in breach of international legal requirements regarding freedom of expression what action would you like to see the international community take in regards to Thailand’s continued use of this law?
ARTICLE 19 would like to see the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and countries with close links to Thailand to raise serious concerns with the Thai government on the misuse of the Lese Majeste law and the 2007 Computer Crime Act (CCA) which has been used as a default lese majeste legislation. The Thai government must open up dialogue with local civil society actors on the provisions of the lese majeste law and CCA and their use, and the government must amend these laws in accordance with Thailand’s obligations under its Constitution and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
Q. The US Embassy in Bangkok has been considered by many as being very ineffective in protecting the rights of its own citizens – in this instance particularly that of the presently incarcerated US citizen Joe Gordon – in regards to the application of the lese majeste law with a recent WikiLeaks Thai cable revealing the US Embassy to believe that “quiet diplomacy” was more effective than vocal protest. There have also been strong rumours that the US Embassy has advised Joe Gordon to plead guilty in order to secure his release – what action should foreign governments take to protect their own citizens from the long reach of LM? (Thailand claims universal jurisdiction of LM and Joe was arrested because he supposedly posted a link to LM material while he was resident in the USA).
We cannot comment on the rumours surrounding the Joe Gordon case. Naturally, his case is a cause for concern and indicative of the far reaching implications of the LM law. Each government makes its own assessment and judgement pending the situation of the cases and its diplomatic relationship with the Thai government.
Q. Most of the recent arrests, prosecutions and harassment via the application of lese majeste, all of which was ramped up massively under the previous Thai Democrat Party government, seemed to have a political tone to it – would you agree that the predominant use of LM has been that of blunt tool to stifle dissent against particular ruling groups?
Yes, given that lese majeste charges were mainly brought on red shirts-affiliated individuals and critics of the government – it is obvious that the broadness of the law is being used as a tool to target political opponents and critical voices. It is almost as if the Thai people’s love for their king has been hijacked by politicians to achieve their own political agenda, in which critical dissent is not tolerated.
Q. What message would you give to the recently elected Pheu Thai government of PM Yingluck Shinawatra?
ARTICLE 19 hopes the new Prime Minister will address the country’s deteriorating freedom of expression situation by amending the lese majeste law and Computer Crime Act. We also call for the release of individuals convicted for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression and urge the respective authorities to drop charges on individuals for remarks made that are deemed lese majeste . We also hope that the Prime Minister will reverse the policy announced by the Deputy Prime Minister to crack down on LM on the internet and to establish a task team to monitor internet content, which will create a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Thailand.
We are glad to hear from the Thai delegation during the UPR session at the United Nations last week, that the Thai government recognises the implications of the LM law and is keen to prevent abuse. We understand that a review of LM is ongoing. We hope the outcome of the review will be made public and the government will take concrete steps to implement its recommendations with close consultation with civil society organisations.
Q. How could LM be reformed so that Thailand’s monarchy can remain protected and the law is not used as an attack on civil liberties?
International standards of freedom of expression require public figures to tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens and be open to public scrutiny. By providing special protection to the royalty, the LM law is in violation with this requirement. ARTICLE 19 is for the repeal of the LM law for these reasons. We hope the Thai government will encourage open dialogues on LM and provide a clear timeline for the reform of the LM law and CCA to minimise abuse of these laws and their impacts on the right to freedom of expression and the right to information.
Q. More recently the head of the Thai Army, General Prayuth, said that LM in its present format shouldn’t be “touched”. The USA have an extraordinarily close military relationship with the Thai Army – should US citizens and law makers committed to freedom of speech be questioning the terms of this relationship when such statements are being made?
Given USA’s strong constitutional guarantee for freedom of expression, we would of course hope to see the US speaking out on Thailand’s suppression of speech using LM law.
Q. Both HRW and AI, despite maintaining offices and staff in Bangkok, have refused to mount any meaningful campaign against LM – do you think it is time for a stronger and coordinated international campaign to be mounted?
There is already a concerted effort among a number of national, regional and international organisations on campaigning against LM. The recent advocacy activities and trial observation around the case of Chiranuch is an example. Besides international groups, Thai NGOs have done a great job campaigning against LM and garnering support from foreign governments and international organisations, which is starting to pay off as evident from the responses from the Thai delegation during Thailand UPR.
Q. The international media have a strong presence in Bangkok yet few journalists mention the restrictions placed on them by LM when filing reports. Arguably, the Thai authorities have maintained one of the most potent self-censorship campaigns anywhere on earth – do you think these journalists are serving the wider public by failing to mention both the restrictions and the self-censorship they operate under?
Self-censorship among journalists is a serious problem, and this is not limited to Thai journalists but also international correspondents reporting on Thailand. I have however also seen many pieces of good journalism from both Thai and foreign media discussing the issue of LM and freedom of expression. Journalists have the responsibilities to report accurately and provide information of public interest to its readers, without being subjected to any form of censorship.
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