Thailand@Harvard Lecture Recap: Rights and Responsibilities of a Free Press in Thailand

November 3, 2016
Pravit Rojanaphruk

“I decided not to announce on social media that I was here at Harvard until I got here,” said Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, the featured speaker of the sixth Thailand@Harvard Lecture on September 20. He had reason to withhold that information too, given that a military junta travel ban on its critics, including Pravit, was only lifted this past June.

Pravit addressed the audience who had gathered to hear his talk, “Holding Governments and Journalists Accountable: Rights and Responsibilities of a Free Press in Thailand,” co-sponsored by the Thai Studies Program at the Harvard University Asia Center and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Pravit, senior staff writer for Khaosod English, previously worked for 23 years writing for The Nation, an English language newspaper in Thailand. He resigned from The Nation after being asked to do so in 2015 after the military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, summoned him for “attitude adjustment” for the second time following years of outspoken criticism of Thai government. “Attitude adjustment” and an “invitation to military camp” belie the reality he faced – six hours of interrogation, a blindfolded drive to an undisclosed location, and two days and two nights of solitary confinement in a room with no natural light and limited ventilation. “My crime was to be persistent in criticizing and denouncing the illegitimate military regime,” Pravit said.

Thailand’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index – 136th of 180 nations – puts Thailand at a worse ranking for press freedom, Pravit pointed out, than Cambodia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Colombia, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe. The ranking reflects three issues Pravit discussed leading to Thailand’s current state of censorship and self censorship: the country’s lack of a genuine social contract, the challenge of lése-majesté law, and the militarization of Thai society.

“Society has been deeply polarized in the last decade,” Pravit said. “Not just citizens, but press too who are divided on what should be the desirable political discourse and system for Thailand.”

According to Pravit, 19 constitutions since 1932, plus a controversial referendum this year to make it 20 constitutions, have failed to give Thailand a reliable social contract by which to govern itself. The result is a polarized country with some citizens choosing to support the military regime rather trusting politicians. “[Coup supporters] believe the military is cleaner than politicians, and more altruistic if not less corrupt,” Pravit said. This polarization underscores the need for media to serve as a forum for balanced views, rather than the currently reflected middle class and elite views central to Bangkok, he added, pointing out that more honest conversations have shifted to social media.

A challenge for Thai media to meet the need for a balanced view lies in the obstacle of lèse-majesté law, which makes it illegal to criticize the Thai monarchy. In an extreme case in 2015, a man was arrested for allegedly making a sarcastic comment online about a royal dog, an act punishable by up to 37 years in prison if convicted, according to London-based The Economist. Pravit’s report of the account was the only mention from Thai mainstream media, he said, and it was removed eight hours after publication. Thai media largely stayed away from the story, though not before foreign media reported on it.

“It is indeed a tragedy that Thai society cannot frankly and critically discuss the monarchy institution…particularly now that the kingdom is heading toward a royal succession,” Pravit told the audience prior to the recent news of King Bhumibol’s death.

The limitations on true accountability – analyzing and questioning the current politicization and militarization of Thai society, according to Pravit – threaten the country’s freedom and democracy. “In militarized society, obeying and not questioning has become the norm. It’s the opposite of democratic society.” In his view, the press must do all it can to provide a platform for debate and a balanced view.

He pointed out the relative improvements in the conditions under which General Prayut Chan-o-cha rules, in comparison to some Thai dictatorships in years past. “Absolute power is no longer absolute,” he said. An increasing borderless world has enabled more flow of information, with more information access to the public through social media.

“The Thai press must try to be responsible to the public and try to hold the military government accountable, no matter how daunting, by defending the little press freedom we still have left,” Pravit said.