In Thailand the legal system seeks to ensure that public comment about the monarchy can only be favourable. Under the lèse majesté provision of the criminal code, any action that insults or disrespects the royal family can bring a sentence of up to 15-years behind bars.

The most recent victim of this law is Melbourne man Harry Nicolaides, who has worked in Thailand as a university lecturer and freelance writer. He was arrested at Bangkok airport on 31 August 2008. As Nicolaides continues to languish in a Bangkok prison cell, the use and abuse of the lèse majesté law has received a modicum of worldwide scrutiny. However since 21 September, Nicolaides’ case has been completely out of the news.

He has been quietly forgotten.

Lèse majesté is a weapon used to defend the perceived honour of Thailand’s royal family. According to Paul Handley, the author of an unauthorised 2006 biography of the king, “[i]n Thailand, all that truly stands between royal virtue and London-tabloid-style media treatment is the lèse majesté statute.”

Since Handley’s controversial book–which is banned in Thailand–there have been a number of high-profile cases of lèse majesté involving foreigners. The two most recent instances where accusations have been levelled at non-Thais are illustrative of the problems with implementing this law.

In December 2006 Oliver Jufer was charged with the offence after defacing images of the king in Chiang Mai during a drunken spree. He was held for four months without bail, and after a quick trial was sentenced to ten years in prison. Jufer served another few weeks before he was pardoned by the king and deported to his native Switzerland.

At the time, outrage about his draconian treatment for an act of immature vandalism led to even more outlandish attacks on the Thai monarchy. There was a flurry of provocative and childish online protests that used the global reach of the YouTube video-sharing website to mock the Thai royals. In response, the Thai government banned YouTube. This sparked further international bemusement and condemnation. To conform to local expectations of fair comment, YouTube is today only available in Thailand in filtered form.

Since the Jufer fiasco, in April 2008 the BBC’s Bangkok correspondent Jonathan Head has been embroiled in a lèse majesté fight of his own. He has not been charged but is the subject of ongoing investigations. Head’s case is related to that of Jakrapob Penkair, an outspoken critic of military intervention in Thai politics and an eloquent ally of deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Comments made to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand during 2007 landed both men in trouble.

When only Thais are involved, lèse majesté does not get as much attention. But one case that has entranced the international press involved student activist and social critic, Chotisak Onsoong. Earlier this year he was charged with lèse majesté after refusing to stand during the playing of the king’s anthem at a Bangkok cinema. Almost unique among recent lèse majesté cases, Chotisak welcomed the charge with further acts of public defiance.

The view of the king himself on lèse majesté is not completely clear. In his 2005 birthday speech he cautioned against the over-exuberant use of this criminal provision. Nonetheless many factions within the Thai elite continue to indulge in episodes of lèse majesté accusation and counter-accusation to score political points.

The king’s formidable media management apparatus is apparently comfortable with this situation. While he may have some personal reservations, the king has yet to make any explicit recommendation that lèse majesté be abolished. Perhaps it remains too useful as a tool for stifling open public debate about the role of the royal family in national political and economic life. Lèse majesté helps guarantee an unrelenting public diet of positive royal news.

In Thailand, it is even hard to report the details of a lèse majesté charge without fear of sanction. Detailed reporting runs the risk of repeating the offence. Self-censorship reigns. So Harry Nicolaides will be unlikely to ever see substantial details about his case published in the Thai media.

Hopefully foreign journalists will exercise their greater freedom to report on his predicament. Some, including the BBC’s Jonathan Head, The Age‘s Peter Gregory, Reuters, the Associated Press and Reporters Without Borders have already made important contributions. But for the past two weeks there has been silence.

All reports suggest that the charge relates to a passage in an obscure book published by Nicolaides that describes the rather flamboyant private life of a Thai prince. This may have been an error of judgement on Nicolaides’ part but it does not, in any way, justify his current treatment. Respect for other country’s legal systems is all very well. But this is a law that silences Thais and foreigners alike. It prevents what we would regard as perfectly normal, if somewhat prurient, reporting on royal lives. More importantly, it muzzles public discussion of a range of issues that lie at the heart of Thailand’s ongoing political crisis.

The Australian media could be doing more to highlight the plight of Nicolaides and to open up broader regional discussion on this outdated taboo.