It’s no secret that I have long been critical of most foreign media coverage of Thailand. On February 1, I wrote an article setting out my views, in considerable anger and disgust, after the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand failed to make any statement on the 11-year jail sentence handed to Thai editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, the gravest blow to Thai media freedom since the 1970s.
My tone was aggressive and provocative, and in turn it drew some melodramatic responses — the usually mild-mannered Andrew Walker accused me of being a virulent anti-royal fundamentalist, and FCCT board member Jim Pollard spectacularly imploded on Facebook.
I’m very glad that the issue of how foreign journalists should cover Thailand is now being robustly debated, and I am particularly glad that the debate is starting to be reported by Thai-language media — it is an extremely important issue that needs to be discussed.
Several FCCT members and foreign journalists in Thailand contacted me privately to say that while they thought my arguments were valid, my tone was excessively condemnatory. That’s a fair point. They also asked me what I would do in their position. That’s a fair question. Both deserve a considered response.
So in the spirit of conciliation, here are three essential points that I hope can form the basis of a more productive discussion in the days, weeks and months ahead. It is important to make clear that I fully understand the extraordinarily difficult position that foreign journalists in Thailand find themselves in. In particular, as the debate of the past few days has shown, there is no way foreign journalists and the FCCT can avoid taking a position on Article 112. If the FCCT had condemned Somyot’s sentence this would have provoked an angry reaction from some ultra-royalists, but failing to condemn the sentence is not a “neutral” stance — not making a statement is in itself a statement, and it has provoked a highly critical response from a great many people, including me. Similarly, failing to report the central role of the monarchy in Thailand’s contemporary political conflicts is not a “neutral” stance, it is a highly partisan and politicized stance. But accurately reporting key issues involving the palace and succession is against the law. It is a very difficult dilemma, and I fully acknowledge that.
Given the precarious situation foreign journalists face, here are my three suggestions for moving forward.
Firstly, I think it is now overwhelmingly recognized that it was a terrible mistake for the FCCT to duck its responsibility by failing to issue a robust statement on the jailing of Somyot Pruksakasemsuk. The main goal of the club is to protect and promote press freedom in Thailand and beyond. I recognize the role played by the FCCT in hosting debates on Article 112 and providing a platform for opponents of the lèse majesté law to share their views. But this cannot become a substitute for taking a clear stance on media freedom and condemning the jailing of journalists — Thai or foreign. A carefully worded statement would not break any Thai law, and while it would naturally attract some unpleasant criticism and protest, that is the price that has to be paid for taking a principled stance.
What’s done is done: there is little point in the FCCT condemning Somyot’s sentence now. But unfortunately, given the way events in Thailand are unfolding, it is extremely likely that Somyot will not be the last journalist to be arrested and jailed under Article 112. It is essential that if this happens, the FCCT makes a clear statement that as journalists we do not believe fellow journalists should be jailed for doing their job. Panel discussions on Article 112 are welcome and should continue, but the FCCT should never again send a signal that the basic human rights of journalists are up for debate.
Secondly, I would like to restate one of the suggestions I made in my original article: I believe the only practical way for foreign journalists to report on Thai political developments in an ethical way without risking falling foul of Article 112 is to preface reports or broadcasts with a health warning something like this:
This report was compiled under the restrictions imposed by Thailand’s lèse majesté law, which criminalizes open discussion of the monarchy.
There is extensive precedent for taking this approach: it was used for many years by British media including the BBC in reporting from apartheid South Africa, and the BBC’s official position remains that viewers should be informed whenever censorship infringes on its journalists’ ability to impartially report the news. The impact of censorship is routinely mentioned by numerous news organizations in reporting from Syria or North Korea, to give two contemporary examples. Particularly in the online era, when consumers of news are increasingly demanding full transparency in how reports are compiled, it is basic good practice for stories impacted by censorship to include a disclaimer saying so.
Adopting such a code of practice in Thailand would be a voluntary step taken by individual news organizations. It is something that needs to be deployed intelligently — clearly there is no need for it in reports on crimes in Pattaya or drug smuggling on the Myanmar border, for example. But journalists know very well when they are censoring themselves in a story, and in these cases, they need to say so.
It makes obvious sense for major news organizations to talk to each other about adopting such a code of practice in Thailand, rather than doing it in an ad hoc and piecemeal way, and while these discussions do not have to be conducted under the auspices of the FCCT, it surely makes sense for the FCCT to play a role.
In this way, foreign journalists can remain true to their professional ethics and obligations while also avoiding a possible breach of Article 112. It is also a robust but not unduly provocative way of pressuring the Thai authorities to allow journalists to work unimpeded by overly harsh enforcement of the law of lèse majesté.
Thirdly, the reason it is so important now for the international media in Thailand to agree on some basic principles and staunchly defend them is that, as we all know, a seismic change is coming in Thailand’s political landscape, and when it comes foreign journalists will be in a far more perilous and precarious position even than the dangerous and difficult conditions they face today. From private conversations with a large number of foreign correspondents in Thailand, I know that major international media organizations are actively drawing up plans for how they will cover the royal succession. I also know that there has been very limited formal coordination or discussion among foreign media about how they will cope with the unique challenges of reporting on the succession in an environment where Article 112 may be strictly enforced, and I fear that this is a grave mistake that means journalists will face significant additional risk.
One of the excellent points made by David Streckfuss at the FCCT panel discussion on lèse majesté on January 31 is that everybody is afraid of crossing the line, and nobody knows where the line is. That will be all the more true, and all the more dangerous, when King Bhumibol’s reign comes to an end. If the FCCT achieves some clarity and consensus about its basic principles now, this will be invaluable preparation for the hazardous days ahead.
I welcome debate on all three of these points, and I’ll do my best to conduct my side of the debate in a less combative manner.
UPDATE — The FCCT has released the following statement on its Facebook page:
This is a welcome development. While it was a serious mistake not to criticize Somyot’s sentence, that opportunity has passed, and I applaud the FCCT board for finally issuing an unequivocal statement making clear that Article 112 violates freedom of speech and that its stringent enforcement intimidates both the local and foreign press.
I hope the board will consider making amends for its failure to condemn the 11-year jailing of Somyot by helping raise awareness of his ongoing detention, on its website and via a permanent display in the clubhouse. I hope the board will also unequivocally call for his release, and continue to make that call in the months and years ahead until Somyot is free.
In my remarks above, I shared my thoughts on where the debate should go from here. The board needs to ensure sure that if any more Thai or foreign journalists are arrested, charged or jailed under Article 112, the FCCT will stand up for them. And foreign journalists need to start being open and honest about the severe impact Article 112 has on their ability to do their jobs. If they do not, they will be letting down their audience and the people of Thailand.
Finally, I hope that the FCCT annual general meeting on February 15 is a turning point for the club in terms of recovering its reputation and respect. I would urge all members who care about freedom of speech in Thailand to attend and make your voices heard.