Monday, September 3, 2007

Deconstructing Kavi Chongkittavorn: A Principled Well Thought Stand from a Journalist at The Nation, Finally

YouTube, my tube and toyland Thailand

Thailand is a wacky and wicked place. Last week was typical. It blew cold and hot simultaneously.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

The unblocking of YouTube was a welcome development. The abolition of the 1941 Printing Act was an even greater one. Then there was the hullabaloo over whether the government should allow the European Union's electoral monitoring team to observe the general election on December 23.

The hostile and misplaced argument was framed with a strong sense of nationalism. These mixed signals and half-hearted approaches to openness over the past year have really dragged down this country's reputation.

The YouTube episode and the passage of the Registration Press Act of 2007 have one thing in common: the overwhelming concern that someone somewhere might criticise the Thai monarchy. The official mindset is simple: if this is a possibility, there must be countermeasures to deal with it decisively.

The blocking of YouTube and numerous other websites by the Ministry of Information and Technology was indeed an insult to the Thai people and has inadvertently tarnished the country and ironically the monarchy itself, especially the King. Heavy online filtering as it occurs today has pushed down Thailand's freedom of expression rating in media freedom indexes around the world.

Concerning the King, former prime minister Anand Panyarachun was very succinct when he told an audience at a recent gathering organised by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand that His Majesty does not see himself as infallible. In short, he is not above criticism. In fact the King welcomes critical comments based on facts and objectivity, according to Anand, who served twice as prime minister in 1991 and 1992. He reiterated that the King gave royal pardons to critics and he personally never made use of or took advantage of legal recourse to silence critics. The Thai government, he pointed out, would ban books or films if they were critical of the King. If the government failed to do anything, he argued, it would be castigated by the people.

In the case of the Registration Press Act, it was passed unanimously by the National Legislative Assembly because of one conditional cause. It states that written materials of foreign origin critical of the monarchy in any form must not be imported into the country.

Under normal circumstances this new law should have been heralded as a new beginning for the Thai press because all the archaic regulations of the draconian 1941 Printing Act have been annulled.

Unfortunately, this is not the case because the country's overall record of freedom of expression is still deplorable. The gist of the recent controversial Computer-Related Crimes Bill remains an Achilles heel as it discourages rather than promotes online freedom and access to knowledge.

Indeed, the government, especially the MICT, always goes for hyperbole concerning the monarchy, which is not the reality at ground level. Denis Gray, editor-in-chief of the best-selling book "The King of Thailand in World Focus", testified perceptively that there are more positive articles than critical ones written by foreign correspondents around the world who have come to know the king since 1946.

"If the thrust of the book is positive, that is the reflection of the bulk of journalistic coverage about him," he wrote. "The fact is that King Bhumibol has consistently enjoyed the kind of press most world leaders can only command in their daydreams." The Thai authorities are daydreaming when it comes to the foreign press and the King.

The squabbling over the EU electoral monitoring is another case that shows Thai officials' hypocrisy and immaturity. They think, without shame, that their actions defend the country's honour and sovereignty. In fact, the opposite is true. They actually undermine it while claiming to protect it.

Earlier the joint response from the Surayud government and the Election Commission was very positive. EU president Jose Manuel Barroso's personal letter to Prime Minister Surayud in late July was very reassuring and well received. He expressed the wish to send a monitoring team to observe the Thai poll. The EU wanted to encourage transparent political reform in Thailand and nothing else. The EU has a long-standing wish to advance cooperation with Thailand on a more modern agenda including good governance, justice, home affairs issues and human rights. We should welcome that.

Alas, truth be told, Thailand has mishandled the whole thing because it lacks the sensitivity required for such a delicate topic. Both sides have yet to discuss and exchange views on how best to proceed with the request. Progress on discussions should be kept discreet until both sides have reached an agreement. Instead, the Thai side blew the whistle as if the EU wanted to interfere with the Thai elections. Amazingly, the EU goodwill gesture has quickly morphed into an issue of sovereignty. That was the last thing the EU wanted to happen. Leading EU trading partners such as Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain want to see a credible Thailand emerging from the coup's aftermath; one that can live up to the world's expectations.

Thailand must be kept open online. We have escaped colonisation and maintained our independence. But with large numbers of foul-mouthed and transgressing officials, uniformed or otherwise, with myopic views of the world and nationalism, Thailand is its own biggest enemy and has only itself to blame.

Man, if the other columnists had only half the brains of Kavi, it would transform that paper.

I don't agree with Kavi all the time, but I agree with this.

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