By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
A society which does not dare look straight at itself is a society in denial.
On Dec. 1, the frontpage of International New York Times in Thailand contained a large, blank white space where there was supposed to be a news article critical of Thailand. Two sentences were printed in that space, however.
“The article in this space was removed by our printer in Thailand. The International New York Times and its editorial staff had no role in its removal,” read the note printed in place of the news article.
Lighting struck again on Dec. 4, when a commentary on Thailand’s Crown Property Bureau and its wealth were also redacted and replaced with the same note.
(If you think those two incidents are disturbing, they are an improvement for the Thai printer, Eastern Printing, which in September just decided to not print the whole newspaper for one day due to a long, front-page article about the succession of the throne.)
I cannot really blame the Thai printer for censoring news and articles which contain a less-than-flattering mention of HRH the Crown Prince, for the printer is not alone.
When it comes to censoring even the most trivial news and information critical or negative about the monarchy, the mainstream mass media in Thailand is very efficient, though people just don’t see it.
All major Thai newspapers and TV stations subscribe to foreign news agencies such as Reuters, AFP, Associated Press or Kyodo. And every now and then there are news items or commentaries critical of Thailand’s monarchy from these foreign news agencies, and those in charge routinely, automatically and almost unconsciously censor them because they all have decided beforehand that no news or commentary critical of the monarchy is fit for printing or broadcasting, reading or viewing.
This practice is so normal that when Thai media organizations and associations talk about press freedom, they do so without an iota of irony, as they don’t see it as self-censorship anymore.
For those who fail to heed the commandment that thou shalt not spread news critical of the monarchy, they risk ending up in prison.
Forty-year-old Ekachai Hongkangwan, a college-graduate and lottery-ticket vendor, served two years and eight months in prison for violating the lese majeste law for having peddled copies of a documentary news program about the future of the Thai monarchy produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He was released a few weeks ago and told me he’s finding it difficult to get a job as employers are unwilling to hire a lese-majeste convict.
This is a society living in fear if you happen to be critical of the monarchy. Most of them have to hide their true political views more discreetly and secretively than some members of the LGBT community shield their gender identity in Thailand.
It is also a society in a chronic state of clinical denial, as it opts to only consume positive-only news and information about the monarchy. Instead of risking a maximum term of 15 years in prison under the lese majeste law, some resort to gossiping in private among those whom they can trust, or at least believe they can trust.
The gap between what’s reported in the mainstream media and what many, including journalists, gossip about in private is ocean wide and disturbing.
On the flip side of censorship and self-censorship is the manufacturing of overt glorification of the monarchy on mainstream television stations.
Most Thai TV news hosts were given a Bike for Dad T-shirt in honor of His Majesty the King, and asked – in writing or verbally or both – to wear it whenever they’re on air.
A newscaster from a major, free TV channel told me many would only put in on before being on camera and remove it once the broadcast ended.
This is a subtle way of creating an appearance of overt consensus on the glorification of the monarchy.
Why the need to go this far? I have no ready answer for that.
The cost of such a predicament for Thailand is considerable, however.
How can we make a critical assessment of our own society’s strengths and weaknesses if the media and the rest cannot say anything critical at all about the royal institution?
Some may say people are free to gossip privately and cite hearsay. But are these un-rigorous and unreliable ways of communicating really adequate?
The need to be able to frankly talk about our own society, including the monarchy, is even more necessary as Thailand moves closer toward the transitional period in which a royal succession will eventually take place. In reality, it’s expected that there will be greater censorship, self-censorship and arrests under the lese majeste law in the foreseeable future.
We’re heading toward more big blank spaces, censorship, self-censorship, even news blackouts, and all we have are these crude tools called gossip and hearsay. This is definitely not a Thailand that I can be proud of.
This self-denial has been going on for a long time now, far too long even, and the question has become: “How much longer are we going to keep pretending that we’re not in self-denial?”
Pravit Rojanaphruk can be followed on Twitter at @PravitR