In a democratic society, freedom of expression – the right to think, speak and write freely – is protected by law. It is considered to be a fundamental right which applies to every member of society. If citizens are able to freely express their views on economic, political, and social issues, there will be an abundance of information, both in the mainstream and alternative media spheres, from which the public can evaluate what is best for themselves and society. Thus, the public can participate in a country’s social, political, and economic development meaningfully as well as monitor the efficiency of state administration. As a result, the government is accountable to the people, public policies will reflect the demands of the people and the country will develop positively.
One area of inquiry regarding freedom of expression is the issue of ‘hate speech’ or, verbal expression aimed at creating hatred against individuals or groups while insulting other people’s dignity. ‘Hate speech’ also includes verbal expressions of prejudice against race, religion, gender, or sexual preference. Soraj Hongladarom Ph.D., Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University, stated that if a society censors ‘hate speech’ then the public must define what constitutes ‘hate speech’ before legislation against it can be passed into law. If ‘hate speech’ is censored, Dr. Soraj maintains, it requires a clear definition because censorship of any speech jeopardizes the right of freedom of expression. In Western countries, such as the United States and countries in Europe, ‘hate speech’ is defined as a verbal attack targeting someone because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. In Thailand, however, most ‘hate speech’ expressions over which certain groups call for censorship and legal action are actually on the grounds of lese majeste law, which, Dr. Soraj claimed, is not related to ‘hate speech’ as such. Dr. Soraj emphasized that the distinction between lese majeste law and ‘hate speech’ needs to be debated thoroughly in Thai society. Pornsan Liangbunlertchai Ph.D., Faculty of Law - Assumption University (ABAC) added that any legal action on the grounds of ‘hate speech’ must be proved by intention and whether any damage had been inflicted. According to the democratic ideal, freedom of expression cannot be taken away by the state – but the legal framework in Thailand does not contain such a provision. In a democratic country, Dr.Pornsan continued, the state shall guarantee the right of freedom of expression for all people and the state cannot interfere or restrict the freedom of expression. However, the law has an exception. Freedom is limited by laws which are divided into two categories: (1) absolute rights, such as the freedom to choose religion, in which the state cannot intervene; and, (2) relative rights, which are limited by the rule of law and are legislated into existence through the democratic process. Both aim at creating security for individuals and the country, but this concept of ‘security’ must also be clearly defined.
For Thailand, the definitions of these terms need to be discussed because ‘national security’ has been conditionally used to restrict freedom of expression of the public. There cannot be a double standard; these rights must apply to everyone equally. “In Western countries, such as the United States and countries in Europe, ‘hate speech’ is defined as a verbal attack targeting someone because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. In Thailand, however, most ‘hate speech’ expressions over which certain groups call for censorship and legal action are actually on the grounds of lese majeste law, which is not related to ‘hate speech’ as such.”
In addition, the attending scholars acknowledged that international laws have been established to protect freedom of expression, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), but that the provisions contained in these laws are selectively applied in Thailand. Pirongrong Ramasoota Rananand Ph.D, Asst. Prof., Faculty of Communication Arts - Chulalongkorn University said that although there are protections for freedom of expression, there is a growing public sentiment that the laws do not adequately restrict ‘hate speech’ as evidenced by many cases in which social sanctions of online media have infringed upon individuals’ right to freedom of expression. For instance, mechanisms of social pressure and sanctions have been violently used against people who write or comment on the Thai monarchy. Presently, there are no organizations or laws to protect these people. Ironically, Dr. Pirongrong claims, people who condemn free expressions as ‘hate speech’ also use ‘hate speech’ against those individuals whom they accuse of ‘hate speech’ in the first place. Somchai Preechasilapakul, Asso. Prof., Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University, said that there seems to be a lot of verbal violence in the language appearing in online media which is a reflection of ongoing political and social conflicts in Thai society. Somchai maintained that the appearance of ‘hate speech’ and fierce conversation in online media exist because people are confused as to exactly what kind of political system exists in Thailand. Therefore, Somchai continued, the debate about these issues should not be about how to manage the ‘politeness’ factor of online exchanges over political views; the debate should be centered on the protection of civil rights and freedom of expression.
Also, participants in online media discussions should argue their points with information and logic rather than humiliating other participants. It seems, Somchai continued, that online media has been used to announce one’s point of view or to promote an ideology instead of being used to present meaningful information. Members of the online community must work together to create a constructive debate and must work to educate a stronger culture of critics. Every person is different; Somchai maintained, no matter if one is a Yellowshirt, Redshirt or anything else. Everyone must respect each other and discuss these issues in a productive and civil manner. One topic that has been discussed in this forum is that the mainstream media focuses on the ‘hate speech’ aspects of the discussion and, as a result, the public focuses too much on the ‘hate speech’ while neglecting real issues that affect Thai people. Pinkaew Laungaramsri Ph.D., Asst. Prof., Faculty of Social Sciences - Chiang Mai University added that besides the issue of ‘hate-speech’ the people should be equally concerned about ‘loving but manipulative speech’ which is also dangerous. Dr. Pinkaew claimed that ‘love and unity of the nation’ phrases, which are designed to inculcate and preserve a ‘high moral culture’ in Thai society, are strongly debated, leaving the real problems that face Thai people not adequately discussed. As a result, Pinkaew said, such phrases can actually lead to civil unrest and violence. Chonrat Chitnaitham, a representative from the Office of The Election Commission of Thailand, commented further on this issue. Chonrat argued “There seems to be a lot of verbal violence in the language appearing in online media which is a reflection of ongoing political and social conflicts in Thai society. That the appearance of ‘hate speech’ and fierce conversation in online media happen because people are confused as to exactly what kind of political system exists in Thailand.”
Somchai Preechasilapakul, Asso. Prof. Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University stated that expression in new media can be done freely and creatively, but the principles of the Constitution must be regarded. The claim under the Constitution of Thailand in 2007, Section 45, which states that ‘a person shall have freedom of opinion, speech, writing, printing and advertising’ should be protected, but not at the expense of the security of the state. Moreover, Chonrat added, the protection of these rights as well as one’s reputation, honor, freedom, family or privacy is necessary to maintain public order and good morals in the people of the Kingdom. Additionally, Chonrat emphasized, besides freedom of expression, people also have a right to access information – including information from government agencies – and new media plays an important role in this respect. Because of new media, Chonrat concluded, information can be shared with the public quickly and efficiently. Boonyod Sukthinthai, Deputy Spokesman of the Democratic Party, noted that allegations of ‘hate speech’ must be proved on a case by case basis. Furthermore, Boonyod added, if what is alleged to be ‘hate speech’ is actually fact, then it should not be labeled ‘hate speech’. Boonyod admitted that new technology allows for content to be distorted or manipulated, and that careful examination of the content for validity must be conducted. Moreover, Boonyod said, if the manipulated content accuses or insults others, there is a defamation charge to deal with such a transgression. The Democrat party spokesman also cautioned that while people have the right to speak freely, people must be careful not to savagely curse others; in particular, comments regarding the main institutions in Thai society, such as the monarchy, should be avoided. Boonyod concluded that government agencies and educational institutions need to educate the public to take this kind of ‘hate speech’ seriously.
During the election campaign in 2011, the political atmosphere between the two major political parties – the Democrat party and the Puea Thai party – was intensely competitive. The 2006 coup had divided Thai society and resulted in the gathering of large groups of Redshirts in the years since the coup. After the brutal crackdown on the streets of Bangkok in 2010, emotions had run high among members on both sides and the tension over the political situation in Thailand was the highest it had ever been. Participants in the forum discussed whether the election could take place fairly or freely in the wake of the Computer Crime Act of 2007 and the Emergency Decree of 2005, both of which allow the state to intervene in any action in order to maintain the peace, order, and national security. This means that in no uncertain terms, the state can censor citizens’ free expression at its discretion. Moreover, it was noted by several panelists that it is unclear whether the declaration of emergency in Thailand was warranted. At the time of the forum, there were many websites and community radio stations had been shut down. The public is therefore directly affected by these laws and the question of fairness in the July 3 election remained.