Progressive journalism?-Prachatai

June 10, 2012

What kind of “liberal” defends the intimidation of young women?

Andrew Spooner

Prachatai: June 2, 2012


This article is, of course, in reply to Pravit’s article directed at my Twitter responses to his stated position – that he privileges the rights of large powerful media companies to intimidate, harass and threaten young Thai women, over the rights of these young Thai women to live their lives free of such intimidation. Pravit makes his case by using such emotive words as “censorship” and “freedom of expression” but avoids equally powerful words such as “death threats”, “fear”,  “rape” and “beheading.”

That he describes me as “foreign supporter of the red-shirt movement” in his opening paragraph leads me to be in a position where I can introduce the irrelevance of Pravit’s personal background as well. The British-educated Pravit is from a very privileged elite Thai family and works for The Nation – a newspaper that has itself published its fair share of incitement whilst aligning itself with the extreme rightwing politics of the PAD/Dem Party.  Of course, I’d prefer to refer to Pravit as a “colleague” but his opening paragraph reveals that he considers my “foreignness” a more important point to consider than my actual arguments themselves.

I want to begin by utterly rejecting Pravit’s continued use of “false equivalence.” No, a Red Shirt being annoyed about someone criticizing Thaksin is not equivalent in any way shape or form to the terror of 112. One is intolerance on a personal level, which, I’m afraid will always exist but can be questioned and debated. The other is a legalized form of intolerance designed for political purposes only and to inflict fear into the hearts of critics. 112 comes complete with courts, police, prisons, army, cells, shackles and lengthy prison sentences. An intolerant Red Shirt is more likely to come with ear hurting shrieks and is not backed up by any law or form of state sanction. I’ve never personally encountered one single Red Shirt anywhere calling for a 112 law to defend Thaksin and challenge Pravit to come up with evidence of that. There is rationally, legally, factually and intellectually no equivalence whatsoever between the two and to claim so is a deceit.

Secondly, Pravit’s other equivalence is completely undone when he compares Orm’s placard to Manager’s incitement. What nonsense. One is a private individual expressing her opinion the other is large, powerful media company whose sole aim is to incite a threatening hate campaign in order to deter Orm and other persons from expressing their opinions. To then claim that doing anything to prevent a powerful media company like Manager from attacking a single woman like this is “censorship” is, once again, a deceit. Preventing incitement is preventing criminality, nothing more, nothing less.

And this points to the deceit at the centre of Pravit’s thinking. Not everyone is powerful, educated, linked to rich families and has a  job at a national newspapers. Some people just want to express their opinion and nothing more. They don’t have the power, family connections to deal with such threats and intimidations. They simply have to live with the awful, debilitating consequences of these threats/intimidations just to protect some journalist’s intellectual musings on what he considers to be “freedom of expression”.

What follows now is a slight re-write of something I wrote back in August 2011 and it refers to the well-known story of Kantoop – the single 17-year-old woman who had a massive hate campaign launched against her and whom almost had her life destroyed by that campaign. It also looks at the case of Rwanda – a developing country in Africa which experienced a terrible genocide, partly inspired by the kind of people and actions whom Pravit would’ve wanted to protect the rights of. In quite horrifying terms Rwanda is THE case-study of the limits of freedom of expression. That these limits are even more important in the kind of tense situation as that facing Thailand, is an issue that Pravit and his acolytes can’t duck. If he doesn’t, well, any resulting bloodshed produced by the types of incitements Pravit wants to protect will be on his hands.

Back in 2010, as the Thai people were busy counting the corpses resulting from former-PM Abhisit’s Bangkok massacre, a young 17-year-old girl left a message on her public Facebook page. The message was a rebuke to Thailand’s royalty that was so mild it didn’t even attract a charge under Thailand’s draconian lese majeste. But what it did attract was something far more sinister.

Within days of making the comment this young woman began to attract a vicious and prolonged hate campaign. Threats to physically attack and murder her were made in their 100s.  Her home address and personal details were shared via social media, while her family also experienced similar levels of intimidation.

The people leading this campaign didn’t engage in a debate about the merits or not of what this young woman said (I am neither defending nor attacking her comments) but just poured out an endless stream of incitement to violence. It was as disgusting and revolting a thing I have witnessed in Thailand and absolutely breached this woman’s freedom of speech and her right to live a life free of such threats. Real-life consequences followed as universities withdrew offers of places on undergraduate courses and she became terrified to step out onto the street. She even changed her name and re-applied but was tracked down and attacked again.

What did the government or police do to protect this young woman’s rights? Absolutely nothing. In fact they remained resolutely silent, not only during that particular hate campaign, but also when Thailand’s far-right began to set-up Facebook pages filled with photos of dead Red Shirt activists entitled “I enjoy seeing Red Shirt corpses”. Broadcast media discussing political matters were censored and shut down while the extreme-right, who spewed out often racist, threatening programming remained untouched.

Fast-forward to 2011 and I am attending a discussion on Thailand’s lese majeste law at the Prachatai offices in central Bangkok. One of my friends, a highly-respected Thai human rights advocate and I are having a private chat on civil disobedience. “It’s very hard to say anything about lese majeste,” he told me. “And that’s not because of the police and the courts. It’s more about the kind of threatening hate campaign Thailand’s extreme rightwing media engage in. They threaten your family, your friends, publish your home address and spread nasty malicious lies. I am more scared of this.”

Yet, leading liberal voices, such as Pravit, seem unable to grasp the troublesome issue of the kinds of hate campaigns outlined above. As Pravit suggests in his article The Grey Area of Freedom of Expression in Thailand protecting the freedom of speech of people to engage in this kind of threatening and intimidating hate campaign overrides the rights of the victims of such campaigns. This is decidedly ill-considered. No democracy on earth tolerates such threats to be repeatedly made – and let’s not forget that in the developing world allowing such campaigns to flourish can have potentially horrific consequences as the Rwandan genocide revealed.

There is little doubt now that Rwandan genocide of 1994 was partly inspired by the mass media radio broadcasts of Hutu fanatics. These radio broadcasts engaged in a months-long campaign of racially profiled denigration and hatred that made clear calls for violence and intimidation. The Tutsis – 800,000 died in the genocide – were singled out and compared to animals who should be slaughtered. Tutsi women were repeatedly referred to as sexual objects who should be raped and defiled. When some voices said these radio broadcasts should be shut down “liberals” demanded the right to freedom of speech be protected and that this right to call for slaughter, rape, murder and violence, in a Rwanda already on the edge of hostilities, be respected and revered. (The Media and the Rwandan Genocide, available online here, is essential reading – h/t @petitpor. in a posting called When Radio Kills also refer to a study which states that the Rwandan radio stations dramatically increased the violence in the areas they were broadcasting in.)

Students of Thai history will know of a similar and notorious case involving former-PM Samak Sundaravej. In 1976, as students held protests inside Bangkok’s Thammasat University, Samak, a presenter on an extreme rightwing Thai Army-owned radio station, exhorted and incited people to attack the students. The resulting massacre, when dozens of the students were murdered in the most brutal fashion, has gone down as one of the most shameful moments in Thailand’s post-war history.

This all raises a question Thai liberals can’t duck – who deserves more protection? Those using the media to threaten and incite violence or those being threatened? And, of course, in a country where media ownership is concentrated in the hands of the military and wealthy extreme rightwing fanatics, should such powerful people be able to intimidate and threaten ordinary members of the public as and when they choose? If liberals condemn governments for engaging in such hate campaigns why shouldn’t they take a stand against powerful private sector interests when they do the same? And, finally, should liberals and progressives, and those committed to establishing Thai democracy, be mounting campaigns to defend the rights of those who engage in such hate campaigns?

This for me isn’t a “censorship” issue. It’s about a 17-year-old women being allowed to freely express their views without being intimidated or threatened by large media companies.  Claiming that creating legal protections for a young woman in those circumstances is “censorship” is, in my opinion, a grave intellectual deceit. Furthermore, it actually belittles and degrades any anticensorship campaign to the point where it is defending criminals attacking young, defenceless women.

It seems that some people are confusing “tolerance” – protected by law and which allows a genuine pluralism of voices to emerge – with the freedom to infringe the rights of others using the media as a vehicle to instill fear and incite violence. Making threatening hate campaigns that incite violence illegal under criminal law and stripping broadcast licences from mass media outlets that engage in it, from whichever political position, doesn’t mean censorship or intolerance. It actually leads to the protection of a space where a fully-formed debate can take place free of threat or intimidation. And yes, the limits of what can be catergorised as intimidation are fairly easy to decide upon in law – there are countless examples of this. The UK’s Broadcasting Code and the Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice are two examples of how to regulate against the kind of threatening, often racist, sometimes homophobic and certainly politically-tinged harassment that is prevalent in Thailand without losing the essential democratic rights to both freedoms of speech and expression. Sanctions in the UK include fines for newspapers and the withdrawal of broadcasting licences. Incitement to violence against individuals would most likely be considered criminal acts that would be dealt with by the courts – defamation and libel are purely dealt at a civil level.

A final thought – Thailand’s “liberals” are easily well-informed enough to be able to call for the kind of balanced value-driven regulatory media environment where the sorts of hate campaigns described here have no place. Being liberal, progressive and tolerant doesn’t mean allowing the powerful to intimidate the weak. It is precisely the opposite.

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