Jim Pollard, a sub-editor at The Nation newspaper and associate director for programmes at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, has responded to the article I published yesterday, The Foreign Media are Failing Thailand. His comments are below, and afterwards I add a response of my own. Jim’s comments are reproduced verbatim, but in the original version they were presented in one vast stream-of-consciousness monologue. I have broken his remarks into paragraphs to make them easier to read. Otherwise I have preserved his grammatical errors, including repeated and omitted words.
None of us like to see rulings like this that hurt freedom of expression, and there is no doubt that the ruling on Somyos was highly contentious, by Western standards. But there are free speech battles raging in many countries in Asia and around the world.
It is well-known that the current Thai constitution and courts take a very dim attitude to any criticism of the monarchy — so what happened to Somyos was utterly predictable — to the point where one must really wonder whether it was in fact orchestrated to achieve the result it got.
In this particular matter, the FCCT board was divided on whether to respond. That is partly because we don’t feel the need to all court rulings or developments. But also because some — like me — don’t rate Somyot as a person worthy of great sympathy, given he worked on a a pro-Thaksin rag, not a real newspaper, but a political magazine that, for Thailand, had a radical agenda. And, he was thus, not only likely to be fully aware of the possibility of this sort of judicial backlash; one has to wonder whether he was goaded by promises of support by backers of that magazine, or prominent red shirts, in the event of him being arrested and prosecuted.
Many Thais on both sides of the political divide have watched a series of lese majeste prosecutions and it appears that people on both sides now recognise that these court actions harm the standing of monarchy. This is sad, ironic and bizarre, given that King Bhumibol said very clearly in a birthday address while Thaksin was prime minister that people should be free to criticise his actions or work.
Many individuals prosecuted for LM offences have later been pardoned, so for many in Thailand, the 11-year jail term is unlikely to be anything near that — and may amount to just a year or two in detention.
No Western journalist likes to see prosecutions let alone jail terms. But that has become the norm of late; Thailand has seen violent political upheaval in recent years and the country remains deeply divided. Columnists have said that LM, or Article 112, has become a topic “too hot” for either political side to touch — so the tough penal provisions for LM offences remain.
At the end of the day, it is up to individual journalists how they want to respond. And what they are prepared to take a stand on. With some members of the board having previously been caught in a highly politicised police complaint about LM matters, they (including me) are now careful about getting entangled in such matters without being genuinely convinced they merit a strong response. Some feel that these are issues that are so deep and fundamental, remarks by “outsiders” will just be water on a duck’s back.
If other journalists outside the country want to take up such issues vigorously, they are undoubtedly more free to do so. But the same could be said about sensitive issues in most countries in this region — abuses by the Hun Sen government, the socialist regimes in Laos, Vietnam, and the quasi-military regime in Nay Pyi Daw. For me, humanitarian concerns in Burma/Myanmar are a bigger concern.
1. I’m glad that Jim has confirmed that “the FCCT board was divided on whether to respond” to the 11-year jail sentence handed to Thai editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk on January 23. This tallies with information I have received from several other sources in the club. It is valuable because it is the first direct confirmation from a named source on the FCCT board, and it shows that the various excuses presented by club president Nirmal Ghosh in his remarks at the FCCT event on January 31 were completely bogus.
The fact that several people on the FCCT board, and a large number of club members, believe that the FCCT should have condemned Somyot’s sentence is very positive: it shows that the organization has not completely lost its moral compass, and a significant proportion of the FCCT membership still believes in basic journalistic ethics. These people need to make their voices heard at the club’s AGM and election of a new leadership on February 15, so that opponents of freedom of speech are booted off the board and the FCCT can begin to regain some credibility as an organization that says its primary goal — to quote its own website — is to “to promote and protect the rights of the press in Thailand and across Asia”.
2. Jim appears to have no understanding of the concept of freedom of speech. Obviously, none of us object to people we agree with freely stating their views. Supporting the basic human right of freedom of speech means accepting that those we disagree with can also legitimately share their opinions. Jim says “there is no doubt that the ruling on Somyos was highly contentious, by Western standards” but believing in human rights and freedom of conscience is not some “Western” quirk — many people on every continent share these values. It is true that by the standards of the Saudi Arabian regime, or the North Korean regime, for example, Somyot got off relatively lightly, but by making this relativist argument Jim is basically saying that he thinks it is acceptable for authoritarian regimes to dictate what people should be allowed to say, and to jail them if they dare to share heretical opinions. He does not believe that freedom of speech is a fundamental human right.
Perhaps the most extraordinary comment in Jim’s defense of the FCCT’s failure to stand up for Somyot is this: “some — like me — don’t rate Somyot as a person worthy of great sympathy, given he worked on a a pro-Thaksin rag, not a real newspaper, but a political magazine that, for Thailand, had a radical agenda”. In other words, if people have views he disagrees with, they don’t deserve great sympathy if they are jailed for 11 years for daring to publish articles he doesn’t like. Journalists who do not toe the line and regurgitate opinions he deems acceptable are not worth protecting.
3. Informed observers of Thailand will note the unintended irony of Jim’s opinion that Somyot did not work for “a real newspaper”, just a “rag” with “a radical agenda”. The magazine Somyot edited, the Voice of the Oppressed/Voice of Taksin, was supportive of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the most popular elected politician in Thai history, deposed in a military coup in September 2006. Although he now lives in exile, Thaksin remains easily the most popular Thai politician. Thai voters have overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Thaksin-controlled political parties at each chance they were given since the coup — the general elections of December 2007 and July 2011.
Jim hates Thaksin. I’m not a huge fan of him myself, as I explained in an article in June 2010, but I recognize that if the people of Thailand were allowed to freely vote for who they wanted to run the country, their choice would be Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand’s royalist establishment is waging an ongoing extra-constitutional campaign to try to crush his political influence and prevent Thais from having the prime minister they want. Whatever my own views of Thaksin, I think it is the democratic right of the Thai people to make their own judgment. For Jim to suggest that a pro-Thaksin magazine is “radical” shows he has no understanding of the aspirations of Thailand’s electorate.
Somyot Pruksakasemsuk is a widely respected and beloved figure within the pro-Thaksin movement. Jim Pollard is a lowly foreign sub-editor at The Nation, a newspaper that is no longer taken seriously by credible observers of Thailand. In recent years The Nation has adopted an increasingly shrill and ultra-royalist editorial line. The managing editor of Nation Group is Thanong Khanthong, a ludicrous figure with neo-fascist tendencies who has become notorious for his eccentric remarks on Twitter. Here are some of his classics:
Don’t be misled by Freedom, Human rights, Democracy, globalisation and other crazy fashionable ideas. They are poisonous and hollow.
If the individual ants ask for freedom and Democracy, they won’t survive.
Democracy promotes freedom, mostly irresponsible freedom. People will overstretch this freedom to extreme.
The following point is so obvious that it seems almost unsporting to spell it out, but here goes anyway: for Jim Pollard to accuse anyone else of working for a contemptible rag with a radical agenda is a blatant case of the pot calling the kettle black.
I have little respect for The Nation (its saving grace is that it has a few excellent journalists, most notably Pravit Rojanaphruk). I have no respect for Jim Pollard. But because I believe in freedom of speech, I support Jim’s right to work there as a sub-editor correcting grammar and punctuation (despite his apparent disregard for paragraphs) and if he is ever jailed for an article he worked on that expresses a legitimate political opinion, I will unequivocally condemn this and call for his release. It’s a pity that Jim is not willing to do the same for people he disagrees with.
4. Jim’s comments display utter ignorance of how lèse majesté repression operates in Thailand. He claims that “what happened to Somyos was utterly predictable”. This is nonsense: the articles Somyot was jailed for were not written by him and did not directly threaten or defame any member of the royal family. The evidence against him was woefully weak. But lèse majesté operates by making an example of an unlucky few to instill fear in everybody else. A leaked U.S. cable from 2009 describes the strategy as “kill the chicken to warn the monkey”. Those unfortunate enough to be targeted find themselves sucked into a Kafkaesque legal nightmare in which bail is routinely denied and a guilty verdict is assured. Most victims plead guilty in order to secure a shorter sentence. Somyot showed immense resolve by refusing to do so, and as a result he faces more than a decade in jail.
Jim also claims that: “Many individuals prosecuted for LM offences have later been pardoned, so for many in Thailand, the 11-year jail term is unlikely to be anything near that — and may amount to just a year or two in detention.” This is completely incorrect. Foreigners charged with lèse majesté are routinely pardoned. Thais are almost never pardoned. They have to serve out their full sentence.
Either Jim is aware that his statements about lèse majesté are false — which makes him a liar — or he genuinely doesn’t have a clue about how the system works in practice — in which case he is an idiot. Either way, his comments reflect extremely poorly on the FCCT.
5. Jim makes the outlandish claim that Somyot’s jailing is some kind of plot masterminded by Thaksin to make the Thai monarchy look bad. As a professional journalist, I am sure he will provide evidence to back up this startling theory. If he cannot, it is yet another reason not to take him seriously.
6. Jim says: “At the end of the day, it is up to individual journalists how they want to respond. And what they are prepared to take a stand on.” That’s true. Some journalists are willing to accept the risks inherent in speaking truth to power, and do their job in a professional and principled way. Others prefer to be hacks who just regurgitate propaganda for money. It’s clear which category Jim falls into.
7. Jim’s extraordinary arguments demonstrate beyond doubt that there is a crisis of credibility at the FCCT. The most worrying thing is that his views may represent the majority opinion of the club’s board, given that the FCCT took the decision to say nothing about Somyot’s sentence. While I respect Jim’s right to share his eccentric remarks, it should be clear that he does not deserve to be on the board of an organization that advocates press freedom. I hope that members of the FCCT will ensure on February 15 that Jim and others who share his position are kicked off the board, so that the club can begin to win back some respect and avoid becoming an object of derision and contempt.
8. Finally, below are some photographs of a brave protest staged by students at Thammasat and Chulalongkorn universities today during the annual football match between the two institutions. As the disgraceful hounding of a young woman nicknamed “Kan Thoob” has shown, Thai students who make a stand against lèse majesté face appalling intimidation and danger, far more serious than anything a foreign journalist has ever suffered in Thailand. Yet these young Thais were willing to take the risk. The contrast with the cowardice of the FCCT speaks for itself.