It was, I think, Socrates who drew the link between the corrupt state and the number of lawyers and doctors therein: “It is a sign of a very bad and shameful education if in a city there is a great need for doctors and lawyers, not only by inferior people and craftsmen, but also by free people who have been allegedly educated.”
Here, in Thailand, the university entrance exams are arranged such that it is those who receive the very best marks who are able to enter medical school (and also helps explain why there are so many medical doctors in politics), while we have many judges, good proportions of whom were appointed during the recent junta period. This by way of background to the observation that, this morning, I went past one of the various courts of Bangkok and noticed a larger than usual number of people hanging around outside, suggesting something of a big case going on: well, this is probably from a different country but there is news that a judgment has been received. The first part is entirely predictable ‘Court clears Democrats’ and that part can be just cut and pasted. The grounds for the judgment are interesting though:
“Prommin alleged that the three Democrats defamed him and the Thai Rak Thai by holding a press conference on March 16 2006, saying three Thai Rak Thai executives had committed election frauds by hiring small parties to contest April 2 2006 election.
But the court ruled that the Democrats held the press conference in good faith to announce the information in had learned.
The court said the Democrats simply wanted to inform the public of attempts to damage the country’s democracy so they had not committed libel as charged.”
So it seems, based on the way this is being reported (which may not be accurate, given the Nation’s legendary inaccuracy and its occasional problems with English), that the court now decides libel cases not on what was said (or written) but on the intention of the people saying it – so, if you are judged to be a good person or to be generally well-intentioned towards the country, you are free to say anything you like no matter how inaccurate or harmful to other people (the Foreign Secretary will be pleased, he has been doing this anyway for some time).
Free speech is a healthy aspect of society, as has been demonstrated by a variety of evidence over the years. However, there must be limits to that free speech and it is possible to differ honestly over where those limits should be set. Many people would agree that making unfounded accusations of murder or attempted murder against specific individuals would be beyond the pale. In such cases, it is reasonable for those people who have been so accused to have recourse to the law to protect their reputation – even if they are subsequently brought to trial for the same alleged offence or similar, then it is quite possible that the accusations will prejudice the possibility of a fair trial and for that reason also should not have been made.
It is, therefore, a positive thing that the military chief General Anupong Paojinda has responded to evidence-light accusations that he was in some way linked to the attempted assassination of the convicted criminal Sondhi Limthongkul with a threat to sue anyone repeating the slur. Everyone should be treated fairly and equally before the law, no matter what position or opinions they hold. Problems tend to arise when free speech is suppressed (openly or otherwise) and the rule of law is not seen to be handed out impartially. This gives rise to conspiracy theories. People who live in Thailand will be aware of the kinds of rumours that are repeated every day – most of which could result in severe trouble for anyone who were to post them or publish them or is even overheard and reported.
Improvements in technology mean that the ability to record events has become more widespread. However, it is not yet true that this technology has made the truth available to everyone. Events remain contested and the state continues to try to privilege one side of the story.
Why is the Thai media so irresponsible and inaccurate? Day after day, obvious lies are passed off as truth or ‘comment,’ unsubstantiated assertions are made and conclusions drawn without evidence or logical thought. Last week the Nation carried reports that an agreement had been made with the UAE to have Thaksin Shinawatra extradited and/or that he had been banned from the country. That turned out to be a lie (or, shall we say, an inaccuracy). Now the Nation has a new story claiming that the Thai government has been “using all means to corner Thaksin.” No evidence is adduced to support this (after all, if they did, pointed questions would be asked about the court case involved) – then again, ‘senior government figures’ often turn out to be criminal slanderers: I wrote last week that Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya was openly Accusing Khun Thaksin of ordering the death of Sondhi Limthongkul (who had just been shot). No evidence at all – just a bald accusation – and this from a Foreign Minister.
So how do they get away with it? In his 2000 book, Politics and the Press in Thailand: Media Machinations, Duncan McCargo tends to put the blame on incompetent and poorly-trained journalists more accustomed to deferring to the pooyai (big people) and not questioning what they were told. However, he also includes a quote from Girling which said: “… with powerful protectors behind them, newspapers may also denounce or libel adversaries to a remarkable degree.”
This tendency of course continues – is it the case, then, that journalists, commentators and proprietors have mistaken the concept of free speech with the ability to say anything at all without penalty? During the Thai Rak Thai administrations, for example, there was much talk about suppression of free speech by recourse to the law of libel, yet few people acknowledged that a lot of what people were saying was, clearly, libelous – unsupported assertions which damage the reputation of a person or institution is a reasonable definition of libel. A lot of comment still is libelous.