Censorship was blatantly at work for all to see at Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) last Friday night when it abruptly cancelled the promised airing of the fifth and last episode of a much-anticipated debate on the monarchy.
Some 30 ultra-royalists threatened to take matters into their own hands and bring in 500 more protesters if the station failed to pull the plug on the programme, called “Tob Jote” (Answering Question), which was moderated by well-known freelance TV host Pinyo Traisuriyathamma.
Protesters said both social critic Sulak Sivaraksa and Thammasat University historian Somsak Jiamteerasakul were causing “division” in society by talking critically about the monarchy on air.
In the words of one highly placed source from Thai PBS who spoke to this writer under the condition of anonymity, protesters questioned why Thai PBS brought in two well-known critics of the lese majeste law to discuss the issue on television.
“It’s like they’re discussing and consulting with one another on how to overthrow the monarchy,” the source told this writer.
Some were wearing T-shirts with the message “Operational Mode Love Father”, in reference to the belief amongst most royalists that HM the King is like the father of the whole nation. The same Thai PBS source added that some protesters were sobbing and teary.
“They were born [under HM the King and he’s] like the Buddha, whom they love. It’s that much,” the source observed.
In cyberspace on Friday night, some disturbing messages were posted. One protester made a threat: “By 9.30pm, if the reply is that no matter what the station will go on airing the programme, I told myself that I would punch the mouth of the person who delivered the message and thrash their chairs.”
Pinyo eventually announced that he would cease producing the programme for Thai PBS. He cited a need to preserve the principle of press freedom above all else and demanded that the station’s management explain to the public how they had a last-minute change of heart despite his programme receiving prior consent by the station’s policy committee.
The two guest speakers and its TV host were willing to submit themselves to the risk of being accused of violating the lese majeste law on national television. They had taken risks and Pinyo must be commended for having invited the two. However, the station’s management failed to uphold the public’s right to be critically informed about the monarchy institution.
While last Friday was another setback for freedom of expression, in a twist of irony, it became a blatant and effective demonstration of how even Thai public television eventually caved in to censorship demands by ultra-royalists.
Nothing that either Sulak, Somsak or even Pinyo could ever have said, could have more concretely and convincingly proved to the public the existence of a culture of censorship, and self-censorship, on anything critical of the monarchy than what these ultra-royalists and Thai PBS management did last week.
What the ultra-royalists did, and the subsequent decision taken under pressure by Thai PBS, made evident the complex working of censorship and self-censorship that went beyond legal barriers from the lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act (CCA). The most disturbing form of censorship is one that is maintained by individuals without receiving instructions from anyone.
Groups like “Operational Mode Love Father” have become modern-day enforcers of censorship. They try to set the limits on what Thais should or can discuss on television.
It’s now up to all of us to decide whether we will choose to submit to their whim or insist on struggling for freedom of expression with fortitude. Each of us may have a different answer, but we cannot avoid making a decision.