This is a guest post by Simon Long, The Economist‘s Asia editor
The dangers Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws pose for the country’s own citizens have been reported in an earlier post on Index on Censorship’s website (23 January). They are also having a growing impact on foreign coverage of the country, and even on Thais’ access to the foreign media.
In December and January, three issues of The Economist were not distributed in Thailand, out of fear that possible lèse-majesté breaches might put Thai distributors at risk. Fears mounted after Harry Nicolaides, the Australian author of a virtually unread novel, was in January sentenced to three years in prison for alleged lèse-majesté in one of its paragraphs. Indeed, one of the affected issues of The Economist was withdrawn because of an article reporting that case.
This is not entirely a new phenomenon. An issue of The Economist was banned in 2002 because of references to the monarchy. Mostly, however, the Thai authorities have overlooked possibly disrespectful coverage of the royal family. And mostly, the foreign media have censored themselves and, fully aware of the sensitivities, avoided all but the most fawningly positive reports.
This has become unsustainable, for two reasons. Firstly, King Bhumibol Adulyadej turned 81 in December, and has been frail. Much loved and respected, he personally is responsible for much of the prestige the monarchy has garnered under his six-decade reign. And he is credited with defusing political crises and ensuring stability. The heir-apparent, however, the crown prince, does not enjoy this standing. Indeed, many Thais believe scandalous rumours about him and regard him with fear and contempt. The looming succession is an important political issue and cannot simply be ignored.
Second, last year saw Thailand descend into something close to mob rule. Protesters against the elected government took over airports, dealing a terrible blow to the important tourist industry in the process. And they did so in the name of the king. The royal family never repudiated them. Indeed, the queen attended the funeral of one of the protesters, an act widely seen as conferring them with a royal seal of approval.
Not to write about the role of the royal family in Thai politics, and to question the uses to which the lèse-majesté laws are put by self-serving politicians, is a dereliction of journalistic duty. That to do so may break Thai law, and — worse still — offend many Thais is unfortunate and upsetting. But if we want to help non-Thais understand what is going on in that wonderful country, it is unavoidable.
So Thailand has joined that list of Asian countries where The Economist finds its distribution disrupted. I suppose it may be a comfort to know that the list includes Asia’s giants. China’s government still sometimes removes copies from the shelves or rips pages out when it does not like the contents.
Even India, so proud of its democracy, holds up every edition that contains a map showing big chunks of Kashmir in Pakistan: the distributor has to deface every single map with a rubber stamp, so that Indian readers know the actual external boundaries of their country as portrayed in The Economist are ‘neither correct nor authentic’. But at least the issue gets through in the end. Maybe Thailand needs lèse-majesté rubber stamps.