Thailand’s media may look modern and espouse free speech but its hedged by self censorship and hemmed by traditional values. Vorani Vanijaka, the Editor of Thailand’s GQ, is keenly aware of the contradictions.
He’s a former political commentator, who has managed to offend many of Thailand’s elite. “You can criticise anyone from the Prime Minister down, which is something you can’t do in most southeast Asian countries” he said. Thailand boasted of a sophisticated and pervasive media, including the million circulation Thai Rath newspaper, national television networks and hundreds of radio stations.
But there were unstated limits on what Thai journalists reported.
There’s a high level of press freedom in Thailand except during coups, which happen every four years. And then there’s the lese-majestie law, where you are you are not just guilty until proven innocent…you are just guilty. I always tell them I am far to cute to go to prison.
An Australian author, Harry Nicolaides was jailed in Bangkok Remand Prison in 2008 on a charge of insulting the Thai Royal Family in a passage of a novel he wrote. The action demonstrated Thai ultra sensitivities ; only fifty copies of the book had been printed and of those only ten had been sold. But coverage of the Thai Royal family was restricted by history culture and tradition, Vanijaka said.
The King is what you would call the Lord Buddha here on earth. If you regard the Thai family as semi divine, you have to give them the respect they deserve. Hence the lese-majestie law. It doesn’t matter how educated and westernised Thais are, they still believe in this concept.
These attitudes had entered Thais’ “cultural sub-conscious” and contributed to self censorship which was also encouraged by Thailand’s face saving culture, traditional politeness strict social hierarchy. They were expressed in Thais spoken and even body language.
Its very difficult to expose people you regard as your social superior, whether they be rich billionaires or powerful politicians. When you meet them, you kow tow to them and that’s translated to journalism.
Vanijaka said that traditional values lingered in Thailand because it had never experienced the social disruptions other Asian countries had. “Koreans had the Korean war while the Japanese lost World War Two. Thailand never had such things which tore down old institutions and reformed thinking,” he said.
In one way, particularly in the big cities, we are very modern and we have all the technologies and are in touch with the rest of the world, but at the same time in our cultural values we are very traditional and adhere to beliefs which go back centuries.
Thailand was caught between the old and the new. Thais were a little too comfortable to change quickly, Vanijaka said. He quoted an ancient Thai proverb :
There’s rice in the field and fish in the water.
Vanijaka said that this meant that in Thailand life was always OK. “You might live in a little hut,” he said,”but you still have Facebook and your Instagram because on top of your hut you have a satellite dish”.