The King and Pai, Part 8: Thailand vs. The BBC

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 1, 2017)

Ten days ago, on March 21, the government deployed a 100-person security team outside Khon Kaen court complex, for the pretrial hearing of for Pai Daodin, (Jutapat Boonpattararaksa), and a large crowd gathered to show their support for a man who is perhaps the second-most famous victim of Thailand’s harsh lese majesty laws. What is all the fuss about? Pai, a 25-year-old, shared a BBC news article about King Vajiralongkorn on Facebook. For this, he is jailed without bail, and if convicted, could serve 3 to 15 year in jail. The primary reason this case is making waves is the remarkable character of Pai Daodin himself and of his friends in the pro-democracy movement.

But this case has struck a nerve locally and internationally, not only because of the popularity and principled stand of Pai Daodin. There is so much at stake, not just for this man, but for freedom of speech in the region. On the same day that the Pai was arrested, December 2, one day after Vajiralongkorn accepted the title of King, the police also raided the offices of BCC Thai in Bangkok, finding them abandoned. The police claimed to be hunting for the author of the article on new King Vajiralongkorn, and Dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha made a statement to the press warning “that no agent, foreign or domestic, will receive special treatment where Thai law is concerned.”

BBC Thai replied that it “was established to bring impartial, independent, and accurate news to a country where the media faces restrictions, and we are confident that this article adheres to the BBC’s editorial principles.”

Within Thailand, those looking to read the BBC article on King Vajiralongkon were blocked by a message from the Orwellinan Ministry for Digital Economy and Society saying the website contained “inappropriate information.”

But for all the bluster and intimidation, no charges were ever brought against the BBC by the Thai government over this incident, as certainly would have happened if the government believed there were actual inaccuracies in the reporting.

Then on March 9, relations between the BBC and the Thai government soured further. The BBC announced it would be ending use of a huge shortwave transmission facility in Thailand. The BBC had been using it to beam uncensored news from the free world into unfree countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan: “We regret that we have not been able to reach an agreement with the Thai government which would allow us to continue using this facility to bring accurate and impartial news to audience in the region.”

As of November, the BBC had still been planning to use the Thai station to expand its programming to include Korean language programs into North Korea. But then, on the 2nd of December, Pai Daodin was arrested and the BBC offices were raided.

The papers did not report the reason for the breakdown in the talks over the transmitter, but it is a good guess is that the Thai government told the BBC they must censor their news about Vajiralongkorn, and the BBC absolutely refused, seeing as it goes against their whole mission.

Some of the Thai news reports wondered if the BBC was perhaps giving up on radio transmission altogether in the age of the internet. The Thai Ministries of Tourism and of Commerce should hope it is only that. It is becoming more apparent every day that Thailand has lost its once proud status as an oasis of relative freedom within Southeast Asia, and Thailand’s international image will never recover if the BBC has to move to Cambodia or Myanmar to beam its messages from the free world into Thailand. According to the Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Index, both of these unfree countries are a little closer to free than Thailand. Check it out on this interactive map:

According to Freedom House, the last year Thailand was “Partially free” was 2012.

This case is not just about Pai. It is about human dignity and the right of Thais and all people to hear and share the news. The BBC and the rest of the free world are not compromising on this point.

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