‘Civil Debate’ Could Protect Thai Monarchy: Reporter

BenarNews Staff

2015-10-09
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151009-TH-mutita-620 Agence France-Presse has named Thai journalist Mutita Chuachang the winner of its Kate Webb Award for 2015 for courageous coverage of lese-majeste court cases.
Courtesy of Poakpong

In Thailand, you can go to jail for saying or writing anything negative about the king or other members of the royal family.

Even casual comments about the monarchy made between cabbies and passengers can land people in trouble under lese-majeste, a royal defamation law that has been on the books for years, says Thai journalist Mutita Chuachang.

Such cases have become more frequent since Thailand’s junta seized power in May 2014, according to Chuachang, 33, a reporter for the Thai news website Prachatai.

Under Article 112 of the country’s criminal code, a person convicted on one count of royal defamation can be jailed for 15 years.

Because of the topic’s sensitivity and pitfalls associated with covering lese-majeste cases, many Thai journalists steer clear of reporting on them.

Mutita is among the few who cover that beat regularly. For this, Agence-France Presse has just named her winner of its Kate Webb Prize for 2015, an award given to a journalist in Asia who excels under adverse conditions, according to AFP.

When Mutita writes about royal defamation cases, “she often cannot repeat the alleged offenses without risking falling foul of the law herself,” AFP said in naming her as the winner of this year’s award.

In an interview with BenarNews, she talks about receiving the honor and the challenges of covering the beat.

BN: What does this award mean to you?

Mutita: I feel happy and think it might raise awareness about the human rights issues involved, both among Thais and people abroad.

Because this issue is quite sensitive, it is easy for those of us reporting on this matter to get labeled as threats to national security by conservative-minded people. This is why, in the past, a lot of the reporting on these issues has been published with no reporters’ names provided.

Reporters tend to want to keep a low profile or even remain anonymous so that they won’t have problems dealing with bureaucrats in the future. After doing this kind of reporting, I don’t know whether I will be able to maintain access to suspects in prison, or deal with the courts as easily as I could in the past.

BN: What is the most difficult or challenging aspect of your work?

Mutita: The challenge is establishing a dialogue with state officials: the police, the military, public prosecutors.

I want to learn how they think and investigate their operations. For example, I would like to know what criteria the police use when considering cases lodged under Article 112 of the Criminal Code; how many lese-majeste cases there are in total and how many of those are actually prosecuted.

An investigation into the mechanisms involved would help increase transparency and help the various state agencies develop in a way that increases respect for human rights and personal freedom.

BN: Has the government pressured you over your reporting on lese-majeste?

Mutita: Not yet, at least not directly. I just feel afraid because there is a lot of rumor-mongering.

Since the coup, I feel I am being watched much more closely by correctional officers whenever I go to interview suspects who have been incarcerated.

New rules now in place also greatly limit visitation times and greatly restrict outsiders’ right of access to inmates.

BN: Is the lese-majeste law overly enforced?

Mutita: Yes. We can see this from statistics gathered by groups like iLaw …. There were a number of lese-majeste suspects charged under the previous civilian government as well.

Many of them are denied the right to post bail and thus remain incarcerated while their cases are being heard. This makes it very difficult for them to build a solid legal defense because they have limited access to their lawyers and limited ability to collect evidence or find defense witnesses.

In addition, they lack the ability to fight cases on material issues because the courts generally reflect the prevailing conventional wisdom of society at-large.

After the coup, there was a large increase in the number of [lese-majeste] cases and these are now tried in the military court system, with no right of appeal and no Supreme Court. The rulings are handed down in secret, with no public observation possible.

Use of this law has been overextended and applied to some strange cases.

Examples include an older sibling charging a younger one in court over something he said at home; people recording conversations between taxi drivers and passengers and using the recording to file charges; even people sharing Facebook links to radio news reports.

There are still suspects in jail in all these cases.

BN: Can a balance exist between constructive criticism and protection of the monarchy?

Mutita: I think it is possible, but we need a more concrete process, one in which the penalties are more proportionate with the alleged offenses.

The currently penalties are too severe, which makes people even more opposed and does nothing to really solve underlying problems. Suppose they changed the penalties to just be a fine, suspended sentence or some kind of community service? I think that would ease some of the stress over issues relating to the monarchy and inject more common sense into the debate.

From my conversations with suspects who have been charged with using very obscene language, many of them are just normal people who are really engaged in political affairs – what we could call really “active citizens.” They are just venting their anger, sounding off recklessly over perceived political or social injustices. We see this time and time again.

Another factor here is the role of ultra-royalist groups that tolerate no criticism of the monarchy whatsoever and are quick to file charges and conduct “witch-hunts” against perceived offenders.

Their actions not only fail to help stabilize the monarchy, but also ratchet up feelings of resentment. They shut down every forum for discussion, making it easy for those on the other side to explode under the increasing pressure – and they have harsh penalties ready at hand when they do.

If these groups could somehow be restricted to engaging in a civil debate with opposing groups – leaving the legal punishment role to the state – the social climate would improve.

More leniency on this matter and providing more forums for debate on the issues involved would ease tensions on both sides. Development of a civil society debate is the creative way forward, one that could lead to greater justice and equality for all citizens and increase security for the royal institution at the same time.

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