King Bhumibol Adulyadej
The Feature

In wake of Thai king’s death, journalists fear speech crackdown

November 14, 2016
King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Secrecy about the Thai king’s health has long fueled rumors of his death, which his subjects discussed only euphemistically and in hushed tones–at least in public. When his end finally arrived last month, speaking freely about the topic got even harder.

The king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, was adored throughout his 70-year reign, and his mourners were genuinely bereft. But there was another reason nobody spoke ill of the dead: Doing so could have amounted to a felony.

Thailand’s lèse-majesté law is the most draconian of its kind in the world. It makes defaming, insulting, or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent, or regent–the official who takes on an absent king’s duties–punishable by three to 15 years in prison; following a 2013 Thai Supreme Court ruling, the law also covers deceased monarchs whose legal status has expired.

But there is no clear definition of what constitutes an insult to the monarchy. King Bhumibol’s death has ushered in an era of uncertainty and trepidation for Thailand, which has lost a unifying figurehead amidst a protracted political crisis. The lèse-majesté law presents a special quandary for journalists; the government has been particularly sensitive to reporting related to the succession of the king’s heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 64.

Most large news organizations with foreign bureaus in Thailand have stories about the king cleared by a legal department before publishing; some omit bylines to protect their reporters. Others simply covered the news of the king’s death from a distance. New York Times San Francisco-based correspondent Thomas Fuller characterized the crown prince, who is expected to succeed his father in December, as not retaining the loyalty and support of the Thai people, prompting Thai Consul General Pornpang Kanittanong to send the paper a letter of complaint.

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BBC Thailand correspondent Jonathan Head, who has been reporting from Thailand for over a decade, expected the king’s death to be sensitive, but he wasn’t anticipating calls on social media to mob his office. There were no factual errors in Head’s reports, in which he announced the king’s death from amongst a throng of well-wishers holding vigils outside the hospital where the king was treated for years. Yet Head was summoned by a government spokesman who informed him that the tone of his coverage had been offensive because he had not expressed sufficiently strong emotions on air. Head explained that he considered weeping on-air unprofessional. The government spokesman, meanwhile, told CJR the meeting never happened.

“The lèse-majesté law is something we all live with,” says Head, who has faced threats of being charged with lèse-majesté before, but never been formally accused. “Inside and outside Thailand, reporting this story would be very different if we didn’t have this law.” Among the topics of journalistic and public interest that are off limits are the king’s cooperation with a number of military governments after coups; the mystery surrounding his brother’s fatal shooting, which allowed him ascend to the throne at 18; the fact that many of his policies designed to help the poor may have been counterproductive; that his irrigation policies may have contributed to recurrent and damaging floods; or any misbehavior by his heir.

Thai citizen or not, anybody can accuse anyone else of defaming the royal family. Once that happens, the accused are in an inescapable Catch 22. Out of respect for the monarchy, each complaint must be followed by a formal investigation; police who don’t do so could find themselves accused of defaming the royals. At trial, the exact nature of the insult may not be repeated, for fear of yet another violation of the law. Almost all the accused plead guilty in the hope of a lenient sentence or a royal pardon, which can only be granted by the king himself, a frequent occurrence, at least under the former ruler.

Though no foreign journalist has been jailed over such charges, three local journalists have been found guilty of royal defamation. There have also been reports of torture involving lèse-majesté suspects, as well as mysterious deaths in custody. Last year, a factory worker faced up to 37 years in jail for “liking” an image with disparaging comments about the king’s dog on Facebook; he is out on bail awaiting trial. A recent report by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which has taken on the unenviable task of defending lèse-majesté suspects, criticized the government’s decision to try such cases in military court. A member of the group is currently under investigation for alleged sedition.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn shares his late father’s love of dogs; it was revealed in a WikiLeaks cable that he once promoted his pet poodle, Foo Foo, to the military rank of Air Force Chief Marshal. A home video of the dog’s birthday party leaked in 2007, showing the prince’s consort wearing nothing but a thong while feeding the dog cake, was blocked by internet censors who deemed it unflattering to the monarchy.

Thailand’s king is largely a symbolic figurehead who retains limited powers as head of state. The current self-appointed prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 2014, retains broad political powers as head of the government. The ruling military junta has applied lèse-majesté laws with unprecedented scope and severity: 70 cases of lèse-majesté have come under investigation in the last two years. Since the king’s death, 25 people have been accused of defaming the royals, mostly involving comments on social media. By the end of October, as the country prepared for the prince’s succession, eight warrants had been issued for lèse-majesté violations.

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the country has entered an especially intolerant period in terms of free expression. “My sense is the law will be enforced more vigorously before the crowning [of the prince] and as the junta tries to steer a smooth and stable royal succession,” he tells CJR.

The CPJ is particularly concerned by the ramped-up government monitoring of online and social media, royalist mobs that violently threatened people who were insufficiently sympathetic during the initial one-month government-mandated mourning period, and a justice minister’s open approval of such mobs. In five recent incidents around the country, people suspected of having insulted the king were physically harassed by mobs. In one of those cases, a woman believed to be suffering from mental illness was forced off a bus and slapped.

The junta’s zeal to enforce the law is ironic given that the late king himself pushed back on how the lèse-majesté law was being applied. In his 2005 birthday address, he stated he would  “welcome public criticism.” It is hard to imagine a similar sentiment from Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who, following his divorce, exiled his children and used the lèse-majesté law to jail his ex-wife’s family members for insulting the monarchy.

It’s difficult for people unfamiliar with the role the king plays in Thai society to understand how deeply people there revere their king, says David Streckfuss, an independent academic specializing in Southeast Asian studies who is based in northeast Thailand. “Some lèse-majesté cases might simply be cases where people are not showing the expected grief,” he noted, including by wearing black; standing still on public transportation when the king’s song is played at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily; wai-ing, or bowing with hands clasped in prayer, before the king’s picture; or even crying at memorial events.

Companies and individuals are treading carefully. During the initial mourning period, the government requested that people wear “somber” clothing; black dye stations were set up around the capital, Bangkok, so people could dye their clothes. Thai paint company Beger turned its website black-and-white for several days, making its myriad color offerings visible only as shades of gray. The royal defamation law had the potential to render colors a violation, so the company proactively switched to grays as a show of respect.

Dominic Faulder, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, points out that in addition to the law of lèse-majesté, there are other ways for the government to undermine critics or political foes, including a full suite of defamation laws, exceptional powers granted by the interim constitution to the military junta, and a law that criminalizes messages sent by electronic devices that are deemed threatening to national security.

“Instead of protecting only the most senior royal figures from attack and affront, as was intended, lèse-majesté is being used to protect against perceived attacks on the greater monarchical institution itself,” says Faulder, who has worked as a journalist in Thailand for decades, and has come under attack from royalists as well as anti-royalists. “Ironically, this often serves to damage the very entity they claim to be protecting.”

Gabrielle Paluch is a 2016 Overseas Press Club Fellow, and spent six years working as a freelance reporter in Southeast Asia. A recent graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she is currently based in NYC covering real estate.