Thailand’s real enemy is insincerity


The Constitutional Tribunal pulls democracy out of the fire… or drops it in? (Source: Matichon, 30 May 2007)

Beware of news editors who write about “stakeholders.” The word may be popular among the staff of international development agencies, producing clouded reports about projects that they have never seen, but it is usually avoided by journalists, who are expected to be more straightforward.

The fact that “stakeholders” appeared no less than four times in a single Bangkok Post feature last week (Now it is time to move on) should set alarm bells ringing about the condition of journalism in Thailand. The unidentified writer praised the special tribunal that had dissolved the overthrown Thai Rak Thai party and advised everyone that its verdict should be universally accepted, serve as a lesson for unscrupulous politicians that they must play by the rules, and that all stakeholders should just cooperate and move on.

The same person could have written the editorial in the country’s second English daily, The Nation. Although the stakeholders were gone, in a few hundred words the author managed to cram in reconciliation, good governance, public accountability, and, in a final mind-numbing paragraph, political ideology, socio-economic status, effective citizenship, genuine democracy based on the rule of law, and “a conducive environment for sustainable economic and social development.”

Such writing is offensive because it denies readers the opportunity to think and react. It has the opposite effect of real journalism, anaesthetizing rather than awakening society. “The great enemy of clear language,” George Orwell said in his seminal essay on politics and English usage, “is insincerity.” Insincere prose is unpleasant to read because while the truth may not be obvious, the struggle to obscure it with nonsense is all too apparent.

Few newspapers in Thailand nowadays report or comment with any sincerity. Whereas the previous decade saw a dramatic rise in their assertiveness, the bullying and goading tactics of the Thaksin Shinawatra government encouraged renewed self-censorship. Among those writers and publishers that resisted Thaksin, many have since been shameless cheerleaders for the junta that pushed him out last September. Alternative opinions, occasionally entertained, give the illusion of continued debate; they are greatly outnumbered by narrow reporting and uncritical commentary. Yet even against this backdrop, the response to the May 30 ruling was a new low.

No doubt the former prime minister and his people manipulated laws and institutions to their commercial and political advantage. They intimidated opponents, precipitated killings and encouraged police excesses. But the superior courts were already examining and proceeding on suits lodged against him and his party prior to the military coup last year. Had they been left alone to rule on the government at that time, in accordance with the 1997 Constitution, then there may indeed have been a great day for justice in Thailand of the sort that was pronounced last week.

Instead, what happened was that a tribunal appointed by the military regime under its interim constitution was given the role of pretending to decide on something that was already settled from the moment that the army took power, applying a law established under the abrogated constitution together with an order from the coup leader. The cynical use of senior judges to do a dirty job for which the generals did not want to be directly responsible was no triumph of justice: it was a travesty that will almost certainly cause lasting damage to public confidence in the country’s entire judiciary.

But there was no room for doubt about the tribunal’s findings in most newspaper editorials and reports the morning after. Blinded by euphoria at the apparent end to Thaksin’s political vehicle, and corrupted by the moral and legal pollution of dictatorship, editors and writers feigning objectivity sought refuge in humbug. Only here and there were cautious questions raised about the validity of the judgment and jurisdiction of the tribunal, again greatly outnumbered by those reassuring readers that from now on everything will be okay, so long as everyone just plays by the rules. Never mind whose rules.

Whatever else happens in Thailand during the weeks and months ahead, the newspapers won’t quickly or easily regain the voice and credibility that they have lost in the last nine months. Readers interested in getting an honest opinion about events there should instead turn to the Internet, if they have not done so already. In addition to news available via the international media, there are a number of useful regional and national Web sites, such as Asia Sentinel and Prachatai. There are also many good blogs, like Bangkok Pundit and New Mandala. If enough people turn away from conventional sources, perhaps editors will realize that by persistently insulting the intelligence of their readers they risk much more than just their integrity.

AHRC Statement: The judiciary is the real loser


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