On October 18, while Thailand was locked in its worst flood disaster in nearly 30 years and as the northern runoff made its way down to the capital of Bangkok, the cabinet managed to sneak through the anti-free speech proposal without much notice by the local media.
The proposed amendment to the Printing Act of 2007, if passed by parliament into law, will give the national police chief the power to close down any news media with impunity. Key issues in the Printing Act amendment are Articles 10, 18/1 and 27. The National Police Chief will have power to prohibit publication, distribution, import, or import for distribution of printing material deemed offensive to the monarchy institution or undermining national security, public order, or good morals.
Violation of the National Police Chief’s order will result in three years’ imprisonment, a fine no more than 100,000 baht, or both. This amendment will add further punishment to what stipulated in Article 112 (lese majeste) and Article 116 (sedition) of the Penal Code.
With Pheu Thai party having an absolute majority in parliament, the legislation is expected to pass into law with little problems. But as parliament has been suspended indefinitely, until the flood crisis comes to an end, the law will not be enacted for at least another month.
Thailand’s current national police chief is Police General Priewpan Damapong, who is the former brother-in-law of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Pol Gen Priewpan was officially appointed on October 19. The incumbent police chief Pol Gen Wichien Poteposree was earlier transferred to take the position as the head of the National Security Council, which is thought to be an inactive post.
Pol Gen Wichien was himself handpicked as the national police chief by the previous Democrat-led government. The appointment followed criticisms over ineffective police handling of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’s (UDD, also known as the red shirts) protests in April and May of 2010. The UDD is a political movement working on behalf of Mr Thaksin.
Pol Gen Wichien attempted to fight for his job by allegedly appealing directly to Privy Council President General Prem Thinlasulanont, but to no avail.
Censorship is a tool used by both sides of Thailand’s political divide in their ongoing conflicts for power and control.
The interpretation of what is deemed offensive to the monarchy institution or undermining national security, public order, or good morals are often dubious and plagued with political agendas.
Previously, the Democrat-led government used emergency powers to make hundreds of arrests and ban publications associated with the UDD, such as “Voice of Thaksin” and “Red Power”, as well as numerous websites and community radio stations.
Prime Minister Thaksin was notorious for his harassment of the media during his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) government regime from 2001 to 2006, most famously for his feud with the National Multimedia Group and for appointing the Media Monitor and Control agency.
Mr Thaksin is seen as the de facto leader and power behind the Pheu Thai government. He allegedly handpicked his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as the prime minister.
Since the Pheu Thai government took office in August, there have been several transfers of key government and state enterprise positions previously held by those thought to have close ties with the Democrat regime. Including the post of national police chief, they are replaced by individuals with close ties to Mr Thaksin.
The amendment of the Printing Act is viewed as another step to consolidate power and influence public opinion in a bid to pave the way for the return of Mr Thaksin to Thailand and, eventually, to power.
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist at the Bangkok Post