The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) is deeply embroiled in the ongoing circus of lese majeste accusations. Jonathan Head, the BBC correspondent in Bangkok and FCCT First Vice President, has long been singled out for attention. But now we hear that the entire FCCT board has been accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. The Nation and Manager both have useful reports, and there is some commentary at Bangkok Pundit and Political Prisoners in Thailand.
Where to begin?
It is worth emphasising that the board of the FCCT includes many of Thailand’s most prominent journalists. These are the people who help keep the world informed about developments in Thailand and neighbouring countries. They work under often difficult conditions and produce a steady stream of news and commentary that all of us rely on when trying to make sense of events.
Throughout Thailand’s difficult past few years the FCCT has admirably sought to provide a platform for a range of different perspectives on local issues. Publishing, and re-publishing, a largely positive account of King Bhumibol’s life has not precluded, say, the hosting of a press conference that launched a petition calling for the reform of the lese majeste law. The types of events and publications that the FCCT supports are surely in the best interests of a free society. In its own words the FCCT “advocates press freedom as a cornerstone of civil society in emerging democracies and is a vital venue for an open exchange of information.”
I’m confident that if push really comes to shove then the FCCT will be able to use its influence and prestige to defend members of its board against the lese majeste accusation. Nonetheless this episode is a serious escalation in Thailand’s internal war about the appropriate role of journalists and “foreigners”, more generally, in analysing Thai society.
If the goal of this lese majeste accusation is to stop critical commentary about the monarchy then, I’m afraid, it will likely have the opposite effect. In future reporting and analysis this episode will just be added to the long list of efforts that have already been made to silence non-conforming voices. It is also a sure money-bet that any further escalation in attacks on foreign journalists in Thailand will generate more ill-will. It may also encourage some of those who have been quite restrained in their commentary to reconsider their options.
It was, as I recall, a former Bangkok-based correspondent who penned The Economist‘s explosive piece at the end of 2008. The last thing the Abhisit government really needs is for an exodus of well-credentialed and highly-experienced correspondents who — from the comfort and safety of London, or Singapore, or Sydney, or wherever — can continue explaining Thailand to the world.
I fail to see how this mass attack on journalists serves the interests of Thailand or, dare I say it, the palace. Prime Minister Abhisit could simplify things a great deal by limiting the scope for concerned citizens to make these very serious accusations. But if he is feeling really brave he could go even further and use this muddle-headed accusation as an opportunity to extricate his government from the clutches of those who have no time for free expression.
Now that would be something worth reporting.