Curbs on Press Freedom Proposed in Thailand

While much of Thailand was underwater last month, the new administration under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra furtively approved an amendment to the country's 2007 Printing Act that would have, if approved by the Parliament, constituted a major step back for freedom of expression in this country. Thailand already has serious limits on freedoms of speech and press, with draconian lèse majesté laws that severely punish public speech against the Thai monarchy.

This new amendment would have given the National Chief of Police unilateral power to shut down any publisher believed to violate lèse majesté laws, undermine national security, or subvert public order. Any publishers in violation of the Chief's decree would be subject to three years in prison, a fine of 100,000 baht (~$3,200 USD), or both.

The Council of State, a body that serves as the legal advisor to the leadership, recommended the withdrawal of the amendment, on the grounds that it was almost certainly prohibited by the current Thai consitution, which protects freedom of expression. Fortunately, the cabinet has obliged.  A good thing, too, because the law would almost certainly have been rubber stamped by the clear majority of Pheu Thai legislators in the parliament.

Hanging over these proceedings (and, really, hanging over all Thai politics) is the spectre of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister ousted by a 2006 coup, and older brother to Yingluck. Thaksin is still in exile, but keen to return and resume his leadership of this country. The proposed limits on freedoms of the press were seen by many as the beginning of a campaign to consolidate public opinion in support of Thaksin's return.

Part of the apparent impetus for the 2006 coup was Thaksin's harassment of the press during his brief second term, so to return to censorship as a tool of governance seems like a risky, and probably losing tactic. Despite the government's very quiet Oct. 18 approval of the amendment-- even the media didn't notice what was happening until a couple weeks later-- it came up against naturally harsh censure across the board. The Bangkok Post published this shameful map illustrating press freedom scores as compiled by Reporters Without Borders, showing democratic Thailand hardly standing out from neighbor Burma:

For a government that campaigned on a platform of civic liberties and freedom of opinion, this is a pretty poor start for Yingluck on freedom of expression. We can breathe a half-hearted sigh of relief that the Council of State intervened this time, but when these floods have passed and the government can return to its priorities in governing, we will now have to expect curbs on free expression to be on their agenda.