By Lisa Gardner Jul 17, 2012 11:16AM UTC
The trial of a Thai man accused of selling video CDs of an Australian television news segment about Thailand’s monarchy is set to begin today in Bangkok.
Akachai Hongkangwan, a 36-year-old local fruit vendor, faces a possible 15 years in prison under Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste law and Computer Crimes Act, laws which criminalize scrutiny or criticism of the revered Thai royal family.
Akachai is accused of distributing VCD copies of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) news segment produced by the network’s Foreign Correspondent program, at a red-shirt rally in March 2011.
The ABC segment, ‘Long Live the King’, was aired in Australia in April 2010. It featured a number of high-profile lese-majeste cases, including those of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, charged as moderator of comments made on a local news website; the brother of lese-majeste prisoner Darinee ‘Da Torpedo’ Charnchoensilpakul, currently serving an extended jail term, and Chotisak Onsung, who was charged with lese-majeste in 2008 for not standing during the screening of the royal anthem prior to a movie screening.
Most controversially, the ABC segment featured footage of the Thai Crown Prince Vijiralongkorn, heir to the throne, that was frowned upon by the Thai authorities.
In the introduction to the program, ABC presenter Mark Corcoran would pertinently assess the difficulties that media face in covering political issues in-country. He would note:
How do you tell the story of Thailand’s royal family when any criticism of the royals can bring (about) a hefty jail sentence in that country?… With Thailand at the crossroads, we’ve resolved that it’s time for a detailed examination of the laws that gag analysis of the laws, and their pivotal role in Thai politics.
With the ABC’s Bangkok bureau evacuated prior to the screening, featured journalist Eric Campbell explained that ”it’s basically a story that can only be done by people who don’t live and work in Thailand.” For him, “the downside is unfortunately I can never go back”.
Thailand’s Ambassador to Australia would later complain to ABC executives “that an organization of the ABC’s stature has lowered its own standard by airing the said documentary, which is presented in a manner no different from tabloid journalism.”
‘Local’ media in an online world
Made available on the ABC website with international ‘blocks’ in place, it is clear that the segment had been intended only for viewing by Australian audiences. Yet the segment would be quickly uploaded to the internet, where Thai censors hastily sought to ban digital access (the video, while regularly uploaded to YouTube before being removed under copyright restrictions, cannot be viewed in Thailand). Yet it is clear that international ‘blocks’ and local efforts to censor aside, once online such material does tend to proliferate.
It is no secret on the streets of Bangkok that material which scrutinizes the Thai royal family are broadly distributed among those ‘in the know’. (This journalist was once accosted by a local motorcycle driver who’d downloaded the ABC segment to his iPhone).
“Being banned makes it (the ABC segment) interesting, and everybody knows it,” says CJ Hinke of internet advocacy group Freedom Against Censorship Thailand. ”And to download it? It’s pretty much instant. I can think of at least half a dozen sites off the top of my head where it’s available for a free download. It’s right out there. To my knowledge, people were sending links around since it was first released.”
Akachai and the ABC
Sources close to Akachai say that, in the weeks following his arrest, he approached ABC staff in Bangkok. The local fruit vendor “thought to advise them of what had happened, and that he was out on bail. In effect, he was told: ‘go away: consider yourself lucky that we don’t sue you for IP violation.’”
In July last year, staff who’d assisted the crew in Bangkok wrote to program producers. Concerned that Akachai’s case would go unnoticed, they asked that the ABC consider making a public statement. “That the producers was (sic) not intended to “insult” or “disdain” the institution (of the monarchy),” they wrote, “but to fairly criticize and present fair views as journalists.” They received no reply.
“It boils down to, well, ‘why are we journalists?’” says Hinke, a Canadian who himself has lived in Thailand for over 20 years. “Why are we reporting on news? We’re journalists because we want to expose that which wouldn’t otherwise be exposed. Why is the ABC producing such shows if they don’t care if people watch it or not, in the places where people are the most concerned?”
Sources close to Akachai say he remains hopeful that the ABC will make a public statement condemning the charges brought against him.
“If they won’t make a statement, at the very least, they should attend the trial,” says a source. “It’s too dangerous for people to speak out in his defense,” says another. “But not for the ABC – they’re already persona non grata.”
In the digital age, questions of distribution are key. Can journalists expect that what they produce for a single, localized audience, remain that way? Are there any such obligations that our information-gathering extends to those prosecuted?
The case will be heard throughout the week, and a verdict expected soon thereafter.
Lisa Gardner is an Australian freelance journalist based in Bangkok. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk