With a lengthy and bruising presidential campaign finally behind them, many Americans were probably surprised by the contrast they encountered opening the newspaper on January 10, 2013, to find reports that a Thai labor activist had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting Thailand’s King.
The embattled activist, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, tried to challenge Thailand’s infamous lèse-majesté law in court, and it appears he failed, getting an additional year for libeling an army general. The activist was the publisher of a newspaper containing two allegedly defamatory articles, and his conviction followed another protestor’s sentencing weeks earlier for violating the same law; the sentencing of a 61-year old man, now dead, to 20 years imprisonment for sending text messages about the Thai royal family; and the imprisonment of an American citizen for translating an allegedly defamatory book about the Thai King.
As international attention focuses on Thailand’s still-vigorous enforcement of a law abandoned hundreds of years ago by the United Kingdom and China and not used since World War II in Japan, human rights organizations have taken notice. The NGO Freedom House called Pruksakasemsuk’s sentencing “a devastating blow to freedom of expression and internet freedom in Thailand [which] contradicts the constitution’s mandate to protect human rights.” Deeply entwined with Thailand’s domestic politics, enforcement of the libel law may to some extent reflect an ongoing struggle between “red shirt” and “yellow shirt” political movements and a broader battle between old and new. To the outside observer, the nuance is obscured and a broader picture of halting democratic progress remains.
In particular, these laws may contravene the universal right to expression guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996. The ICCPR’s Section 19, Freedom of Opinion and Expression, contains language seemingly at odds with a lèse-majesté regime. According to ICCPR’s most recent General Comments, “an attack on a person, because of the exercise of his or her freedom of opinion or expression, including such forms of attack as arbitrary arrest, torture, threats to life and killing, [cannot] be compatible with article 19.”
Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has urged “Thailand to hold broad-based public consultations to amend section 112 of the penal code and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act so that they are in conformity with the country’s international human rights obligations,” referring to the ICCPR. Unmentioned, however, was the surprising array of ICCPR signatories that apparently still maintain some kind of prohibition on insulting the monarch.
In Denmark, for example, defendants convicted under the country’s libel laws receive double sentences for libeling the regent. According to David Streckfuss, the author of Truth on Trial in Thailand, it is also possible to receive sentences of up to five years for lèse-majesté in Spain, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium. Streckfuss draws a number of distinctions between Thailand and the European constitutional monarchies, noting that the European monarchs nearly all swear an oath to their constitution. Still, he acknowledges that both the Netherlands and Spain have used their laws recently, resulting in fines or short jail terms for those found guilty.
For Thailand’s part, the country’s Constitutional Court, sometimes associated with the royalist camp, ruled in October that Section 112 is a constitutional implementation of the 2007 Constitution, which places the monarch in a position of “revered worship.” Given the attention lavished on Thailand’s increasing application of its laws, one must wonder why these European countries, often offered as paragons of free expression—and all signatories to the ICCPR—have not encountered more resistance to the continued possibility of punishment for this brand of speech.