Thailand, and the world, got a close-up view last week of what a truly censored society looks like. The lesson came from China, where the death of a “dissident” set off near panic and controlled frenzy in the many offices of thousands of Chinese censors.
Since Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died of cancer, the Beijing government has been working around the clock to prevent Chinese people from even knowing about it. And then, for those who do find out, trying to ensure they don’t tell others.
Overall, it is an ugly scene. The bottom line is quite inescapable. The government of more than a billion people, one that craves to be called a “superpower”, is flatly lying to its citizens. Liu was — and certainly still is — known worldwide. Preventing news of his death from reaching the country suppresses a truth that the Chinese have a right to know.
It is also a massive overreaction. Liu was actually well known in China, specifically because of government attacks.
While Chinese censors have always tried to wipe out news of Liu’s achievements, government attacks on his accomplishments and fame have of course informed the people.
Similar equally ridiculous campaigns have taken place in many countries. In Thailand, governments spent decades alternately criticising and trying to cover up the work of national patriot Pridi Banomyong.
The fear of Liu by the supposedly powerful Beijing leadership will pass, too. The Communist Party of China (CCP) will never agree to rehabilitate Liu, like Pridi. But in time, Chinese authorities will realise the error in all the frantic censorship currently under way.
Liu was a powerful advocate of responsible and accountable government, which China certainly lacks. But the great lie perpetrated by the censors is that the death of Liu was actually a national security threat.
In fact, freedom of speech never is. If Liu and his Chinese followers could bring down the CCP with words and persuasion, then it deserves to fall. “National security” does not entail threats to government. Regimes come and go; strong nations live on.
Using censorship to stifle ideas and stamp on fresh and interesting perspectives does not display a regime’s strength but its weakness.
Thailand’s government at present only aspires to have the censorship power of China. All its internet policies say so.
Appointing the extra-judicial National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) as official censor and close monitoring of the internet, even of “likes” on Facebook posts, make that clear.
Longer prison sentences have become the norm for issues involving censorship. The regime has strengthened the misnamed and misused Computer Security Act, both to threaten and then to punish supposed miscreants.
The most high-profile current case of censorship involves Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, better known as Pai Pao Din.
Now in a Khon Kaen jail cell awaiting trial on lese-majeste offences and violation of the Computer Crime Act for sharing a BBC Thai article on Facebook, the democracy activist has been denied bail more than a dozen times for making satirical comments about the authorities and failing to delete the post.
Recently, the regime warned explicitly against following or liking the Facebook accounts of two Thai professors and a foreign journalist. This act of censorship by intimidation also is a clear attempt to deny people access to information.
Thai censorship has not yet reached the extremes of China. But the regime of the National Council for Peace and Order clearly envies Chinese success.
It is only by exercising their right to free speech that Thais can hold back the government’s attempts to block it.