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The foreign media are failing Thailand

It’s time the truth is told about an archaic, elitist and secretive institution that is increasingly out of touch with reality and badly failing the people of 21st century Thailand.

I am referring, of course, to the FCCT.

The once-proud Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand has been in decline for decades: its antiquated website boasts of “the good old days” when “it was the place to go” in Bangkok, but by the time I arrived in Thailand in May 2000 it was a miserable and pretentious institution, a dingy drinking venue for (overwhelmingly middle-aged and male) bar-stool bores.

Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. On the evening of January 31, 2013, the FCCT sank to the lowest point in its 57 year history, when club president Nirmal Ghosh took the stage ahead of a panel discussion on lèse majesté to make excuses for not condemning the gravest blow to Thai media freedom in a generation.

A week earlier, 51-year-old Thai editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was brought into court in shackles to face sentencing over two magazine articles that he did not write and which did not directly refer to the royal family. He had already been incarcerated for nearly two years and denied bail 12 times while awaiting trial. The sentence he received — 11 years imprisonment — was grotesque in its severity. The implications for freedom of speech in Thailand are deeply troubling, and Somyot’s punishment drew worldwide concern, including statements from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, the Asian Human Rights Commission, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans FrontièresHuman Rights Watch, and Amnesty International.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, however, had nothing to say about a Thai editor being imprisoned for more than a decade. Board members were instructed not to make any comment on the case. After a week of silence Nirmal finally shared the reasons why. The FCCT was a club and not an association, he said, and so it would be inappropriate to issue a statement on such a sensitive issue. It was important for the FCCT to avoid taking sides, so it could remain a neutral venue for debate and discussion. Foreign journalists should not lecture the Thai authorities about how to run the country, and should stick to covering the news rather than trying to influence policy. They should report, not judge.

It was an extraordinary — and shameful — spectacle: the president of Thailand’s foreign media club washing his hands of responsibility for standing up for a fellow journalist handed a shockingly disproportionate sentence under an obsolescent and widely derided law.

Let’s start with Nirmal’s curious claim that as “a club”, the FCCT should not be expected to make a principled stand against repression and censorship in Thailand. Perhaps he forgot to read the club’s website (entirely understandably — it’s useless). Here is how the FCCT describes itself:

FCCT website

Leaving aside the claim to be “one of the most vibrant clubs in Bangkok” — something only the very deluded or very geriatric would believe — the FCCT’s own website makes clear that, contrary to the excuses of the board, the main purpose of the organisation is to promote the freedom of the media. Which tends to require opposing lengthy jail sentences for journalists and editors.

Just in case there is any doubt, the FCCT website even has a special section on “press freedom”:

FCCT websiteThe claim the FCCT does not and should not make official statements on serious issues of media safety and freedom is completely untrue. In 2010 the club quite rightly issued statements on the violent killing of my colleague Hiro Muramoto of Reuters and of freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi. Why does Somyot not deserve a similar statement of concern from the FCCT? Is it because the club is so feckless that only the death of a journalist can spur it into saying something, or because it only cares about foreigners and doesn’t give a damn about Thais?

Suggesting that taking a stand on this issue is inappropriate for journalists and that the FCCT’s role should be merely to provide a forum for debate is clueless and contemptible. Of course respectful dialogue and discussion should be encouraged, but it is staggering to claim that there can be legitimate debate in 2013 among credible journalists — or anybody who believes in freedom of speech — about whether an 11-year jail sentence is justified for an editor publishing articles that state a legitimate political opinion. This is not an issue on which journalists can quietly retreat to the “middle ground”.

At the January 31 panel discussion at the FCCT, Somyot’s courageous wife Sukunya and the indefatigable Prachatai news website boss Chiranuch Premchaiporn — two women whose lives have been turned upside down by an unjust and oppressive law — had to share the stage with ultra-royalist buffoon Tul Sitthisomwong, who was presumably invited for spurious reasons of “balance”. One can only imagine how sickened and let down they must have felt. The whole sorry spectacle was not dissimilar to a discussion on whether rape is really such a bad thing, with victims of sexual assault and their loved ones having to share a panel with an enthusiastic and unrepentant sexual predator.

In private, Nirmal Ghosh and his fellow FCCT board members give different excuses for their inaction. They say that of course they are opposed to Article 112, but for the foreign media to advocate reform of a controversial Thai law would be counterproductive, and it is up to the Thai people to decide whether lèse majesté legislation should be amended or abolished. For the foreign media to adopt a principled stand would merely harden the position of the ultra-royalists, they claim. So it is far more sensible for journalists to obey the law, keep their heads down, and wait for the Thai establishment to scrap Article 112 in its own time. The best contribution the foreign media can make is just to report the news impartially and non-judgmentally.

The fundamental flaw in this argument is that it is quite simply impossible for journalists to report on contemporary Thai politics accurately and impartially without violating the law of lèse majesté. At the heart of the political turmoil that has engulfed Thailand in the 21st century are two interlinked power struggles — a conflict over the appropriate balance of power between the monarchy, military, bureaucracy, elected politicians and civil society, and a succession conflict over who should reign as Rama X when the decrepit King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies. Common to both struggles is the question of how much influence the palace should wield in a modern democracy. There is no way to properly explain what is happening in Thailand today without extensive reference to these profoundly important issues.

Thailand’s royalist establishment pretends that these conflicts do not exist, and anybody who challenges this manifestly ludicrous position is at risk of being charged with lèse majesté. The official story is that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy in which King Bhumibol, Queen Sirikit and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn are universally adored but remain scrupulously above politics, only intervening reluctantly at times of great crisis to prevent bloodshed and chaos.

This is a fairytale that no credible observer of Thailand takes seriously in 2013. Groundbreaking studies by Benedict Anderson in 1978 and Kevin Hewison in 1997 showed that the palace played a central role in Thai politics and was by no means a democratising influence. In 2006, The King Never Smiles, a brave and brilliant study of Thailand by U.S. journalist Paul Handley, demonstrated in compelling detail that Bhumibol, Sirikit, Vajiralongkorn and their cronies had incessantly meddled in politics for decades and shown a consistent hostility to popular sovereignty. As Hewison wrote in his review article A Book, the King and the 2006 Coup

The palace spinmeisters regularly assert that the king is above politics and that he carefully maintains his constitutional position… One of the great values of Handley’s study is that he demonstrates that this particular argument, borrowed from palace propaganda, can no longer be accepted by serious scholars.

Events since The King Never Smiles was published have proven Handley’s central thesis beyond any doubt. In September 2006, royalist generals deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, the most popular prime minister in Thai history, in a military coup. The extent of palace involvement in the putsch remains unknown but Bhumibol could certainly have ordered a halt to the coup if he wanted. He chose not to. In October 2008, Queen Sirikit explicitly — and disastrously — intervened in Thai politics by presiding over the funeral rites of a young monarchist woman killed during violent clashes with police as royalist protesters tried to overthrow the elected government. In 2010 and 2011, secret U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks gave an unprecedented insight into the political machinations of the royalist establishment, and the conflict among Thailand’s elite over the royal succession. I published an extensive analysis of the cables in June 2011.

You wouldn’t know any of this from reading most mainstream foreign media reporting on Thailand. As Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of the best and bravest of Thailand’s journalists, wrote in a 2011 article:

The “invisible hand”, “special power”, “irresistible force”, all these words have been mentioned frequently lately by people, politicians and the mass media when discussing Thai politics…

These expressions are used as a substitute for an alleged unspeakable and unconstitutional force in Thai politics, to make the otherwise incomplete stories about politics and its manipulation slightly more comprehensible…

Like a vampire fearing the scrutiny of sunlight, Thai politics can never be comprehensible or democratic without trying to make visible the invisible hand.

The vast majority of foreign journalists continue to cling to the discredited fairytale narrative propounded by palace propaganda. They focus on relatively trivial issues like the perennial squabbles between Thailand’s mostly corrupt and incompetent politicians, and devote extensive coverage to the political influence of the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, without mentioning the equally significant extra-constitutional meddling of the royal family and its network. By doing so, they present a profoundly incomplete and biased picture. Failing to challenge the lèse majesté law and report the reality of palace influence in 21st century Thailand is the opposite of being neutral and impartial. Foreign journalists who report the fairytale version of Thai history and politics either don’t know any better — in which case they are incompetent — or know they are telling a slanted story but do it anyway — in which case they are dishonest and unethical.

By reporting Thailand so inadequately, the foreign media are doing a grave disservice to their global audience. There is no other country on earth in which the foreign press corps so obsequiously avoids reporting basic facts that they surely know to be true. Even mighty China and bellicose North Korea, for all their restrictions on reporting and freedom of information, fail to match the ability of Thailand’s elite to persuade foreign journalists to obediently censor themselves.

This is not just a betrayal of the media’s duty to inform world opinion. It is also an abdication of their responsibility to promote freedom of speech in Thailand. Even if the FCCT wants to wash its hands of openly advocating reform of the lèse majesté law, the foreign media could still play a critical role in bringing about saner enforcement of Article 112 if more foreign journalists just did their jobs properly. If they were to collectively resolve to honestly report the centrality of the monarchy in Thailand’s ongoing political crisis, the lèse majesté law would become unsustainable in its current form. The Thai authorities would face a stark choice between launching a catastrophic legal campaign against the massed ranks of the foreign media, or taking a more sensible and measured approach to freedom of speech.

There is scant hope that Thailand’s elite will agree to reform Article 112 any time soon, and the very nature of the the lèse majesté taboo prevents popular pressure to change the law, however many Thais privately want this. So the foreign media has a duty to take the lead, and report the truth about Thailand’s modern history and politics, respectfully and impartially.

But most foreign journalists fail to report the truth, and as a result, Thais are being victimised and jailed just for stating simple facts or expressing opinions. In December, former stockbroker Katha Pachariyaphong was given a six-year sentence — reduced to four as he entered a guilty plea — over two comments he made on webboard. The court declared:

HM the King and all members of the royal family love the people equally and are above political conflict. HM the King and Princess Sirindhorn are politically neutral.

Every informed Thai and every informed foreign journalist in Thailand knows this statement is nonsense. Yet by failing to report the obvious fact that Thailand’s royals have political opinions and a tendency to intervene in politics, the foreign media helps foster an environment in which Thais like Katha are jailed for years just for speaking their mind.

The real reason Nirmal Ghosh and the FCCT board refuse to condemn Somyot’s sentence and refuse to openly state their opposition to censorship and lèse majesté has nothing to do with principle. It is because they are scared. Not only are they terrified of accurately reporting the role of the monarchy in Thai politics, but they are afraid to even criticise Article 112, even though there is nothing illegal in doing so.

Worse, most foreign journalists are unwilling to even acknowledge that they operate in perpetual fear of lèse majesté and that this severely constrains their reporting. They refuse to even be honest about their inability to cover Thailand honestly. This is another fundamental reason why Article 112 remains in force in Thailand. The Thai authorities routinely state that the lèse majesté law does not stifle responsible journalistic or academic coverage of Thailand and is purely deployed against those who egregiously defame or threaten the monarchy. Once again, all informed Thais and foreign journalists know that this is nonsense, and once again, the foreign media fails to say so.

The very least that the FCCT could do, as a club which claims its main goal is to “promote and protect the rights of the press in Thailand and across Asia”, is to simply acknowledge the fearful chill that draconian enforcement of the lèse majesté law casts over their reporting. But all they can offer are evasions and excuses. The FCCT seems to believe that this abject display of weakness will protect its members. Instead, by showing how easily they can be intimidated, they are putting themselves at greater risk.

There are plenty of courageous and principled foreign journalists covering Thailand — too many to list here, in fact, although besides the immense contribution made by Paul Handley it is worth noting the brave reporting of the BBC’s Jonathan Head (who has faced several lèse majesté accusations), the consistently high-quality coverage of Thailand by The Economist, and the willingness of Wayne Hay and Al Jazeera to report on the damage wrought by Article 112.

Unfortunately, their good work is undermined by a feckless majority who refuse to stand up to censorship, and a vocal minority of longtime FCCT members who unashamedly peddle palace propaganda. The most egregious example of the latter was the abysmal hagiography King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, written by a team including Nicholas Grossman, Dominic Faulder, Julian Gearing, Paul Wedel, Richard Ehrlich, Robert Horn, Joe Cummings and Robert Woodrow. A stunningly obsequious story in November 2011 by veteran Associated Press correspondent Denis Gray also deserves a special mention in the hall of shame.

The dismal spectacle at the FCCT on January 31 should never be repeated. The club needs to live up to the promises it has made to promote press freedom in Thailand. It also needs to be transformed from a self-congratulatory social club for smug middle-aged Western males into a vibrant venue that makes active efforts to attract and nurture young Thai journalists.

The FCCT holds its annual general meeting and elects a new board on February 15. I won’t be there — I’m not a member, and I’m a fugitive from Thai justice, alas — but I would encourage everybody who cares about journalism and freedom of speech in Thailand to attend and make your voices heard.

Three practical suggestions in particular seem worth pursuing.

  • Firstly, a new board should be chosen that consists of credible, principled correspondents who don’t think it is acceptable to stay silent when a fellow journalist or editor is sentenced to more than a decade in jail.
  • Secondly, the new board should launch an active collective effort to engage with the Thai authorities and inform them that the FCCT will take a robust stand to protect and defend journalists who simply report basic realities of Thai politics.
  • Thirdly, the FCCT should work with major media organisations to draft a suggested “health warning” to preface reports on Thai politics. My suggested wording would be: “This report has been compiled under restrictions imposed by Thailand’s lèse majesté law, which criminalises open discussion of the monarchy.” It would be entirely voluntary whether individual journalists and media organisations choose to adopt such a health warning, but doing so is standard practice in other countries where severe censorship is in place, and failing to be honest about the restrictions placed on reporting breaches basic journalistic ethics.

By failing to criticise — or even acknowledge — the worsening repression of freedom of speech in Thailand, the FCCT is colluding in it. That needs to change. Thais deserve better from the foreign media than this:

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  1. The FCCT. Where journalistic hip replacements go to die.

  2. Sam Deedes says:

    Regarding your encouragement of an intervention at the FCCT AGM. This has to be done in a calculated professional way rather than an emotional moral one. Attention needs to be paid to the FCCT Constitution and By-Laws in the back of the Members’ Directory.

    An amendment to PURPOSES (Constitution #3) needs to be proposed. Perhaps also to LIMITATIONS (Constitution #4). It needs to be made freely available to interested parties.

    The boat has been missed as far as this year’s AGM is concerned as By Law XVI requires submission of such a proposal to be made to the EC 45 days before the AGM. That doesn’t mean it can’t be organised around for next year. It would require a minimum of 7 Correspondent Members.

    Alternatively AMENDMENTS (Constitution #14) can be used. This allows for a special business meeting to be called where a 75% majority of Correspondent Members (or proxy votes) is required. Such meetings need to be requested by at least 8 Correspondent Members.

    If a long haul campaign is envisaged rather that a firework display of moral outrage at the 15 Feb AGM, then stories from you regarding the greater bravery of other Foreign Corespondents’ Clubs across the world would be useful.

    • zenjournalist says:

      Very useful information, thank you. I certainly see this as a long-haul project: making the FCCT a more useful organization and improving the quality of foreign journalism on Thailand.

      As you will see, my latest post sets out some points that I hope will provide common ground on which to base further debate.

      Best wishes

  3. Eric says:

    Hi there, This is a *super* analysis/report. I am forwarding it to my friends at Russia Today TV and Canadian Global research. Thank you for this incisive and honorable report. Eric Sommer, fellow journalist.