Press Freedom Isn’t Free

A political cartoon by Stephane 'Stephff' Peray created days after the May 2014 coup d'etat for The Nation, a daily English-language newspaper in Thailand. The Nation did not publish the cartoon.

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer

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Press freedom isn’t free, and the price is especially high under a dictatorship. People must fight to maintain it, as they must freedom in general. We cannot maintain freedoms of press and expression if we are not willing to pay the price in the face of threats and tyrannies.

I paid the price by being detained twice without charge for a total of 10 days since 2014. Today, I was to fly to Helsinki to attend the World Press Freedom Day celebration, an event co-organized by UNESCO and the government of Finland, under the invitation of the latter. 

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I won’t be there Tuesday, however, as Thailand’s military regime has banned me from leaving the country.

Those are small prices to be paid, as journalists elsewhere face long-term detention or even assassination.

In Thailand, it is worth sticking it out against the junta, which prefers the much nicer name of “National Council for Peace and Order,” because freedom of the press is indispensable not just for a free-thinking society, but for any society wanting its people to coexist on the basis of rational thinking, mutual understanding and dignity. There can be no deliberation or empathy if society cannot publicly communicate and deliberate.

Journalists defending free expression are thus not only defending their rights, their indispensable tools of their trade but also the broader rights of society to think, express, articulate and debate publicly.

As I write these words, the crackdown on expression is spreading online.

On Thursday, eight  Facebook and social media users were charged with sedition for defaming junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who led the coup in May 2014. Three of these eight netizens are now also charged of violating the draconian lese majeste law, which prevents people from speaking and writing critically about the monarchy under threat of long prison terms.

Dictators of all stripes try to suppress press freedom and free expression as they see a threat to their autocratic existence. Prayuth has ruled Thailand, deliberately turning it into Juntaland, by making his desires into law through the exercise of Article 44 of his junta’s interim constitution, a set of laws also written by the coup makers after they overthrew civilian rule. He now wields absolute power.

Thailand’s military dictatorship is squeezing the public sphere, on the streets and online. The junta is fearful of voices speaking freely – for free and critical thinking are antithesis to military unthinking, where orders must be unquestioningly obeyed. Dictatorships seek to rule over a docile and unthinking population no longer aware of its rights as individuals. The dictator would say: These are the laws, these are the orders, but you won’t go to prison if you don’t break them.

Nothing is said about whether the law and the order are legitimate. Nor is it asked, as most media in Thailand have treated this regime like just another elected and legitimate administration.

That enables dictatorship, which does not tolerate such questioning because it doesn’t have legitimate answers.

Dictators around the world censor because they fear reasoning. Questioning and reasoning undermine the coercion and fear fundamental to maintaining dictatorial rule. A free press and questioning public are threats to dictatorial rule because rational thinking is the opposite of dictator unthinking. It’s through free thought that the might of dictatorial rule becomes naked and illegitimate.

Expecting people to be silent and afraid of unjust punishment is unsustainable and runs against human nature, however. The thirst for freedom, including press freedom, cannot be suppressed, for freedom to think and express are what makes us fully human.

My duty as a journalist is to continue to scrutinize and criticize the powers that be, dictatorial or not. My duty is also to defend the limited press freedom and freedom of expression that society still has.

The junta probably expected that, after two detentions, euphemistically called “attitude adjustments,” and the travel ban, I would keep quiet. I cannot for so much is at stake for Thai society, and it would be tantamount to abandoning my duties as a journalist and citizen to merely watch Thailand turn into Juntaland. 

I try not to let fear triumph over faith and reason and hope that I will be able to have enough fortitude. Life is too short to be cowed.   

Today I am supposed to be flying to Helsinki, but the Thai military dictatorship is afraid of scrutiny and criticism, so they banned me from traveling as punishment for speaking out and calling them for what they are – an illegitimate regime. No amount of illegitimate power can change my mind or make them legitimate, however.

Others in Thai media have over the decades accrued sufficient love for free expression to resist continued attempts at censorship. I know I am not alone in the struggle for liberty in Thailand.

For my part, I will continue to resist the normalization of censorship and dictatorial unthinking, however.

Writer’s Note: This column will also be published by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders on World Press Freedom Day as part of its campaign against the curbing of press freedom by Thailand's military regime.