The expressions of outrage at the sentencing of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk to 10 years for lèse majesté offences have, rather embarrassingly, been overwhelmingly from foreign organizations. Not only has the National Human Rights Commission, alongside the government, been the recipient of these protests, rather than the author of one or two, but the Thai Journalists Association has also so far maintained a studied silence.
The right to freedom of expression is crucial to the existence of a healthy media. Journalists can’t do their job properly without it. So the Thai Journalists Association has to say it is in favour of the idea.
And Somyot was jailed for his actions as the editor of a journal. So one might expect a national professional association to come out in his defence, as international outfits have. But this is clearly causing them conniptions.
Chavarong Limpatthamapanee, President of the TJA, has been forced to admit that they do ‘support and protect freedom of expression of the media’. But they then ring-fence this support and protection with as many caveats as they hope will protect them from the ultra-royalists.
First they circumscribe the right to freedom of expression within Thai law. For expression to be free, it ‘must be under Thai law’, they say. This follows the practice of that piece of toilet paper called the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights, which regards rights as limited by national law, rather than the normal way of thinking, which is that laws must respect rights.
The TJA then decides that freedom of expression does not belong to everyone, but only ‘media’ and says there is a debate going on within the TJA over a definition of what does and does not constitute media.
Khun Chavarong offers a novel definition: “What we protect is media that reports objectively, but if any media tries to have a political agenda for certain political groups, then we cannot protect them.”
Leaving aside the long-standing debate over that weasel-word ‘objectivity’, this seems to mean that freedom of expression stops as soon as you turn to the op-ed page.
So any idea that the right to freedom of expression as delineated in the constitution or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which Thailand has signed) covers everyone and everything is completely wrong-headed. First it doesn’t cover you if the Thai government, on whatever pretext, passes a law saying it doesn’t, constitutions and covenants be damned; and second it doesn’t cover anything that expresses the political ideas of any political group (which incidentally makes reporting of the ongoing Bangkok Governor’s election a bit of a non-starter).
The TJA is, however, not alone in taking this line of thinking. The right to education has been similarly redefined by the Ministry of Education. I don’t know of any document that is as explicit as the statements by the TJA President, but judging from general practice, it seems that every Thai child has the right to an education as long as that education doesn’t involve thinking for yourself. Or asking questions. And certainly not challenging accepted tradition.
Back in 2008, when the police broke up a yellow-shirt demonstration that was trying to prevent the government of the day from functioning, some doctors at Chulalongkorn Hospital tried to restrict the right to health care. They were promptly disavowed by the hospital authorities but doctors in other state hospitals were quick to follow their cue.
Their thinking was that if police officers were involved in violence against protestors, then they had foregone the right to medical treatment. The good doctors would therefore deny treatment to police officers injured in the demonstration. Including, I suppose, the officer who was deliberately run over by a PAD driver, who backed up and ran over him again.
It is the responsibility of this column to make some things perfectly clear. Rights are rights and cannot be curtailed, circumscribed or just plain cancelled just because you don’t like the person claiming the rights. As Voltaire didn’t say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
As long as you agree with me, of course.