Among the many news headlines that were lined up, one will not miss out the headline of both the Bangkok Post and the New York Times last February 21, 2009. The news coverage discussed about an Australian writer, Harry Nicolaides, who was given a royal pardon by the King of Thailand. Nicolaides spent five months in prison in Thailand since his arrest at the Bangkok airport in August 31 last year. In January, Thai authorities, through Bangkok’s Criminal Court, sentenced Harry Nicolaides to three years imprisonment. Nicolaides pleaded guilty to lese majeste or slandering the monarchy.
Bangkok’s Criminal Court found Nicolaides guilty of insulting His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the crown prince. The Court believed that the members of the royal family were alluded to in Nicolaides’s book “Verisimilitude. ” Nicolaides published the book in 2005. Though fictional, the court stated that the character of the prince in Nicolaide’s “Verisimilitude” disgraced the royal family. The court also found insinuations in the book that the royal family has abused its power. Nicolaides’s three-year sentence was cut short though when a royal pardon was granted.
This was after the Australian government made intense lobbying, through its Embassy in Bangkok, to the Thai authorities. The news report stated that, in an interview with Mark Dean, Nicolaides’s lawyer, both the Australian and Thai governments coordinated closely to resolve Nicolaides’s case and speed up his return to Australia. Mark Dean confirmed in an interview aired over Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Nicolaides was released Thursday night, February 20 and was deported from Thailand back to Australia midnight of February 21.
The New York Times reported a “tearful reunion” between Nicolaides and his family when he arrived in Australia. The real-life drama of Nicolaides took another high point when, a few hours prior to his departure in Bangkok, he learned that his mother was brought to the hospital because she suffered a stroke. Nicolaides’s father, Socrates attributed the stroke to stress because of Harry’s imprisonment. As if this was not enough, the New York Times likewise reported that a few hours before Nicolaides learned about his mother’s hospitalization, he himself fell into a sewerage tank inside the prison.
Harry Nicolaides, according to the same news report by the New York Times, had arranged for a hospital visit right after his arrival in Australia. The 41-year old Harry Nicolaides earlier worked as a university lecturer in Thailand. Currently, the story of Harry Nicolaides brought back images of the olden times—of kings, queens, castles and courtyards, of armored soldiers, horses and guillotines. However, one has to consider Thailand’s system of government and the subsequent cultural and social practices that is particular to this country. Thailand is still under a monarchy, albeit, constitutional.
While already constitutional, it has continued to maintain severe laws on lese majeste. Violations of the laws on lese majeste include, among others, vilification and threatening the King of Thailand and other members of the royal family, including its heirs. The sanction for those who violate lese majeste laws is three to 15 years imprisonment. Thailand, according to the news reports of both the New York Times and the Bangkok Post, retains some of the strictest laws on lese majeste in the world today. These laws are meant to protect His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and other members of the royal family from transgressions of the public.
According to the New York Times, the revered king, His Majesty King Bhumibol, is the only king that has served Thailand’s monarchy the longest in today’s contemporary history. He is consequently, the only king most Thais have ever known. The king is at times, considered almost divine by his constituents. King Bhumibol continues to wield influence even in the daily affairs of the civilian government in Thailand. The New York Times report stated that the persecutions for the violations of lese majeste are a recent phenomenon in Thailand. Never has violations of lese majeste laws took this kind of prominence as today.
This may be due to, according to the same news report, the mounting concern among Thais on the looming succession of King Bhumibol. At age 81, the succession to the king’s throne is already being talked about not only within the royal family, government authorities but publicly as well. Considering the public’s reverence to the king and the amount of power the king wields in Thai society, the uncertainties about the future of the monarchy have naturally become foremost nowadays. These uncertainties may be the reason why Thai authorities have become more sensitive and thus, more strict in implementing the laws on lese majeste.
Proof is the report of New York Times quoting Thai Foreign Ministry spokesperson Thani Thongpakdee that Nicolaides is not the first foreigner charged with violations of the laws of lese majeste. He also was not the first one granted a royal pardon by the King. From both the news accounts of the Bangkok Post and the New York Times, one would learn that there were indeed several other cases similar to Harry Nicolaides’s. At the time when Nicolaides was sentenced to a three-year imprisonment, Thai police has also charged Ji Ungpakom with violations of lese majeste.
Ji is a political scientist at the Chulalongkorn University, one of Thailand’s premier universities. Police authorities claimed that Ji insulted King Bhumibol in his book published in 2007, two years after Niolaides’s book was published. The New York Times also cited that an unnamed Swiss citizen was earlier sentenced to a 10-year imprisonment for vandalizing the images of King Bhumibol. The Swiss man was said to be agitated due to drunkenness. The conviction of the Swiss man was reportedly the first conviction of a foreigner for lese majeste in no less than a decade.
The king eventually pardoned him after a month of being in prison. Recent events however seem to indicate an increasing number of charges of violations of lese majeste and the consequent convictions of the so-called offenders. This proves that the issue of lese majeste has become a touchy one in Thai society, specifically among the authorities. Meanwhile, Ji denied the charges hurled against him by the Thai authorities. Instead, he blamed the government for the rising use of the laws of lese majeste to curtail the rights of those perceived to be critical of the government and the royal family.
It may be recalled that Thailand has been beset with political turmoil recently following the ouster of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ji, according to the news report, believed that the charges against him were political in nature. He said his book titled “A Coup for the Rich,” denounced the military for instigating a coup d’etat that caused the downfall of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Earlier in February, Ji Ungpakom reportedly left Thailand for England. The New York Times news report cited other similar cases of lese majeste such as the banning of 4,000 websites by Thai authorities.
The police authorities likewise said that there are presently 17 pending criminal cases of violations of the laws of lese majeste. Judging from the coverage of the event by the two newspapers the New York Times and the Bangkok Post one would see similarities in their reporting. For one, both reports were submitted by international news agencies. The New York Times carried the story from the Associated Press (AP) while the Bangkok Post posted the story from the Agence France Press (AFP). The news coverage coming from these two news organizations were cognizant of its international readership.
As such, they devoted space to explain the context by which the case of Harry Nicolaides should be viewed. Both news items ensured that they cater to a wide variety of readers of diverse cultures and political perspectives. Both covered the reactions of Nicolaides’s family members although the New York Times provided more details such as the predicaments and the present situation of Nicolaides’s mother.
Although the Bangkok Post clarified the concept of lese majeste, the New York Times explained more extensively lese majeste and its significance in the current situation of Thailand i. e. , the political situation vis-a-vis the role of the royal family, specifically that of the king’s. The New York Times’s coverage discussed more extensively the lese majeste laws and demonstrated how these are linked to freedom of expression and how it could possibly be used to curtail press freedom and suppress persons perceived to be against the monarchy and its political allies. It was able to demonstrate this through the presentation of various cases involving lese majeste as in the case of the Swiss man and the political scientist from the Chulalongkorn University.
By presenting both cases, the New York Times was able to show that not only foreigners but also citizens of Thailand were charged with violations of lese majeste laws. Overall, preference is given to the coverage of the New York Times which was more detailed both in providing the facts and the context of Nicolaides’s case especially to those who are not familiar with the situation and particularities of the constitutional monarchy in Thailand. At first glance, the arrest of Harry Nicolaides who is both a foreigner and a writer may be a surprise for those who are from the western countries, specifically the United States.
In all probability, one would automatically take the case as affront to the freedom of expression-a tenet held deeply in a country that considers itself the bastion of democracy. It may be difficult for the Americans to imagine how one could be sent to jail for writing a fictional book or banning thousands of internet sites that the authorities believe insulted the royalty. In fact, even local media groups in Thailand sounded the alarm bell for such cases arguing that the Thai authorities have used the laws of lese majeste to quell resistance that is widespread in their country presently.
On the other hand, those in the U. S. may consider the particularity of Thailand’s monarchy and how the Thais perceive their king to arrive at an understanding of how the likes of Harry Nicolaides are punished. In any case, it is believed that freedom of expression is a non-negotiable right of an individual in any system of government. Curtailment of this freedom should not be used against those who express a different view from those in power. For the Americans, Nicolaides’s case brings to fore the appreciation of the freedom they experience at present and the need to ensure that freedom of expression is protected and upheld.
One may also realize that freedom of expression is not only a concern of the Americans in the United States but also of the United States in its dealings with other countries of the world, whether they share the same views with the US or not. Works Cited “King pardons jailed writer. ” 21 February 2009. Bangkok Post. <http://www. bangkokpost. com “Author Pardoned for Insulting Thai Monarchy. ” 20 February 2009. New York Times. <http://www. nytimes. com/>.