By Liza Winkler

Flag of Thailand

The country of Thailand is known around the world for its tourist attractions in the famous city of Nakhon Pathom, which houses the world’s tallest Buddhist pagoda, as well as the numerous scenic mountains, canals and beaches throughout the landscape. The flag of Thailand may bear the colors of red, white and blue, but many people in the United States may not know how distinctly free speech and free press rights differ for native Thai people. According to the Reporters Without Borders Free Press Index, Thailand is currently ranked 137 out of 179 countries, which is up from its place of 153 in 2010. The country became a member of the United Nations in 1946 joining the likes of the U.S., United Kingdom and China. All Thai people are subject to “lèse-majesté” laws in the country which have been in place since 1899. The laws restrict free speech on individuals through government imposed harsh punishments for any defamatory comments made about the royal powers in the country. A person can receive a 15-year prison sentence for statements which are deemed “insulting” by a royal official. The Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand is currently pushing to amend the laws to prevent manipulation in politics and to require “authorization” before criminal charges can be enforced on an accused person. Thailand has experienced significant regime changes and violent protests in the past few decades with the addition of a new constitution implemented only five years ago. Thailand still has a long way to go to ensure better free speech and free press efforts by fighting censorship laws.

Historical Background

Thailand is located in Southeastern Asia and borders the countries of Burma, Laos and Cambodia as well as the Gulf of Thailand. The country is approximately 198,116 square miles which equals a little more than twice the size of Wyoming. Population numbers in Thailand are at an estimated 67,091,089. Famous cities include Bangkok, the capital, which has 6.9 million people, the paradise destination of Phuket, and Ayutthaya, one of the oldest cities of the ancient world. The country also has a reputation as a prostitution and trafficking destination with approximately 2 million people in the sex worker industry including 400,000 children under the age of 16. Prostitution in Thailand has been outlawed by the government since 1966, but the industry continues to fuel billions of dollars into the national economy.

Thailand is one of the few countries in Asia that has never been colonized by a foreign power and has been mostly independent since 1238. The British had a colonial presence in the area in 1824, but due to Anglo-French influence, there was full independence in the country after 1896. In World War II, the Japanese military attacked Thailand, formerly known as Siam, and the pro-Japan puppet government fell in 1944. The U.S. sent about $2 billion in aid to Thailand from 1950 through the late 1960s to aid in the collapse of Cambodia and Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

The current Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the first woman to hold the position in the country. Shinawatra’s older brother, Thaksin, was the former Prime Minister of Thailand in 2001. He was ousted in 2006 during a bloodless military coup. From 1931 to 1991, there were 17 military coups in the country to overthrow the government. The Prime Minister is limited to serve two terms of four years each. The country’s governing body has been a constitutional monarchy with a civil law system and common law influences since 1932. The country has a hereditary secession for the monarchy. The constitution of the country was revised on Aug. 24, 2007 after the military coup was successfully carried out for the first time in 15 years.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned as Chief of State since 1946. Several opposition groups with factional ties to the king wanted Thaksin Shinawatra to resign because of money fraud and property corruption charges. In May 2007, Thaksin Shinawatra’s political party known as Thai Rak Thai was found guilty of election fraud and banned from government for five years. Samak Sundaravej of the People Power Party became Prime Minister in 2008 and supported democratic movements, but was forced to resign in September of the same year due to violent protestors from the People’s Alliance for Democracy. The alliance urged an appointed legislature instead of an election process. The People Power Party was also indicted on election fraud charges by the constitutional court which prompted the succession of two more Prime Ministers and several violent riots. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, the country places 81st for strength of democracy and ranks 105 for durability of the political system when compared to the rest of the countries in the world. According to information from the Legatum Prosperity Index, 86 percent of Thai people are satisfied with freedom of choice in their daily lives.

Free Speech

Free speech issues in Thailand are closely tied to the “lèse-majesté” laws as discussed earlier. The Thailand Constitution, in section 45, says that “a person shall enjoy the liberty to express his opinion [and] make speech…” and restrictions can be imposed in circumstances such as “maintaining the security of State, protecting the rights, liberties, dignity, reputation, family or privacy rights of other person, maintaining public order or good morals or preventing or halting the deterioration of the mind or health of the public.” The laws have been around for 113 years to protect the royal families who have ruled Thailand since the 10th century. The laws imprison any Thais who make defamatory, insulting or threatening statements towards members of the royal family. Due to the abundance of military coups in the 20th century, the leaders of Thailand defend censorship of free speech in order to maintain the security of the nation.

In the late 1960s, Thais began to publicly critique the leadership of the government and relations with the U.S. A new constitution was installed in 1968 due to increased activism in the community and use of free speech rights to speak out against Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn. In the 1970s, massive student street demonstrations lead to many arrests, the cost of 1,577 lives and the dissolution of absolute military rule. The free speech shown by the protestors allowed full democracy to begin its roots within Thailand. The laws have also been used as tools by various Prime Ministers such as Abhisit Vejjajiva and Thaksin Shinawatra, Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga and Information and Communications Technology Minister Ranongrak Suwanchawee to silence government critics under the pretense of national security. Salirathavibhaga said, “freedom of speech might have to be compromised for the sake of national security.”

In a 2005 address, King Bhumibol asserted his stance largely against the “lèse-majesté” laws by saying he welcomes criticism and has pardoned several people convicted under the laws in the past. According to the, international commentators have found fault in the king for not putting significant efforts toward ending the rise in censorship convictions in the country.

There are several current events centered on free speech with regards to “lèse-majesté” laws in Thailand. The Thai Computer Crime Act of July 2007 allows the government to block website URLs found to have fraudulent content, content against “lèse-majesté” laws, pornography, national security threats and abortion or gambling information as well as several other topics. According to a report posted by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung website, there have been 117 court orders to block access to 74,686 URLs as of July 2010. The Reporters Without Borders organization said, “Burma could soon overtake Thailand which was heavily criticized for jailing bloggers who transgress its strict ‘lèse-majesté’ laws.” Reporters Without Borders also stated in its 2012 Thailand report that “since taking office, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has shown itself to be worse than its predecessor in terms of Web filtering. After assuming his position as Thailand’s ICT Minister, Anudith Nakornthap ordered the blocking of 60,000 Web pages in less than three months, as opposed to 70,000 in the preceding three years.”

According to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Thais can be criminally charged and imprisoned for commenting, sharing or “liking” content the royal family finds insulting, as of November 2011. A 61-year-old man was accused of sending insulting text messages and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. According to the Guardian news website, Thailand was the first country to publicly endorse Twitter content censorship in January of 2012. A tweet can be blocked in Thaliand at the request of an individual, company or government agency, but can still be seen by people in other countries.

Symbolic speech such as flag desecration and religious worship offenses are banned in Thailand. Under the Thailand Penal Code 118, “whoever, making any act to the flag or any other emblem to be symbolized the State with the intention to deride the Nation” will be imprisoned for a maximum of two years and fined. Religious worship desecration is outlawed as well in Penal Code 206 “to the object or place of religious worship of any group of persons in the manner likely to insult such religion” will be put in jail for two to seven years and fined.

Free Press

According to the Thailand Constitution, people are able to “write, print, publicize, and express himself and herself by other means” and the mass media “have the liberty to express their opinion and to present the news, but with strict concern for professional ethics.” Free press rights are emphasized in the country from the governing documents. Some historic free press issues date back to when Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram was elected in 1938. He supported a regime similar to Benito Mussolini with fascism traits which exiled Chinese business class officials and restricted their free press rights by closing newspapers and schools. The National Assembly, created under the 1932 Constitution, enabled a half-appointed and half-indirectly elected governing body. In 1951, the regime got rid of the National Assembly which led to opposition from the schools as well as the press. The press officials were able to speak out against the changes of the government.

In the 1960s, exposure to mass media and education increased and the number of student activists in Thai economics and politics. The press information about the Vietnam War educated the public and largely brought economic development to the Thai middle class. According to, U.S. Ambassador Skip Boyce pointed out areas of concern for Thailand’s democracy including the use of libel suits in 2005. Boyce said “Friends of Thaksin” purchased media outlets to limit access to independent news, attempted to shut down community radio stations and sensationalized journalism stories within the country.

The recent crackdown on the enforcement of “lèse-majesté” laws has brought the press under scrutiny for its coverage of relating arrests. In 2009, Suwicha Thakhor was arrested and put in prison without bail for posting something the royal family found offensive including pornographic photos.  According to, there was widespread media coverage of his arrest and Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga requested shortly after that all “lèse-majesté” related arrests be kept private. Salirathavibhaga allegedly told the Thai Department of Special Investigation to help stop media coverage of any radio station closures, website censorship or arrests related to the laws. In October 2011, the Universal Periodic Review Working Group along with the Article 19 organization spoke out for a repeal of the “lèse-majesté” laws. According to Article 19, “Thai journalists tend to exercise self-censorship on issues regarding the military, monarchy and the judiciary. This has been widely attributed to the control of media…” There are trials being held for a number of “lèse-majesté” cases including one of Prachatai Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor of an independent news site, who had anonymous content on her webpage. The content was found offensive to the royal family.

According to a report posted by the IFEX, a Thai journalist who frequently exposed land disputes was killed in Phuket in January 2012. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 20 human rights activists were killed in Thailand throughout the past 11 years. The death tallies of journalists and activists depict how dangerous it can be to report in Thailand due to government censorship of the press.

Critical Comparison Between Thailand and the U.S.

Free Speech: Many founding rights in the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence vary from the way the Thailand Constitution is applied to law. The statements for speech in the U.S. and Thailand documents are relatively similar, but are different in contextual applications. Free speech issues, both historic and current, in Thailand including the use of the “lèse-majesté” laws to silence critics, Internet censorship of URLs and social media, the ban on pornography, abortion and gambling as well flag and religious desecration are handled much differently in the U.S. The U.S. uses the Supreme Court to decide judicial public matters with the help of stare decisis rulings to be referenced in the future.

In the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times versus Sullivan, the justices ruled actual malice must be proved in order for a public official to win in a libel suit. In a unanimous decision, the Court created a new guideline that the First Amendment protects the publication of all true or false statements about the conduct of public officials except when a falsehood is published with prior knowledge of the falsity or with “reckless disregard for the truth.” The Thai “lèse-majesté” laws would be held unconstitutional in the U.S. because of the Sullivan standard applying the royal family criticism into the public official realm. In the U.S., there is no royal family, but most all public officials are openly scrutinized in speech on a daily basis in order to provoke debate. The President of the U.S. is not able to silence his critics, like Thailand Prime Ministers do, because public and political debate is welcomed under the First Amendment and guaranteed through the Sullivan case. The First Amendment allows for free speech on Internet social networking websites. Someone can be potentially punished for speech violations in the U.S., though, if the government perceives there are significant national security terrorism threats. Criticism of public officials is not punishable by law in the U.S. because public debate is encouraged.

The U.S. is more lenient on the sex industry, women’s reproductive choice issues and gambling, than Thailand. The U.S. does not have a ban on pornography altogether although there is a ban on child porn and minors viewing porn. The Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996 (CPPA) prohibits “any visual depiction” that “is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” In the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe versus Wade, a 7-2 vote held that a woman could have an abortion as a right to privacy protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. An American woman has the option of abortion for the first trimester and different levels of state requirements for the second and third trimesters. This was a monumental case for the time which has been frequently debated and almost overturned due to the sensitivity of abortion with the public. The legality of gambling is decided by the states. Gambling has criminal and civil offenses in Texas under Chapter 47 of the Texas Statutes.

In the Supreme Court case Texas versus Johnson of 1989, flag burning was ruled to be protected by the First Amendment. Johnson’s actions were viewed as expressive conduct for a political nature. The Court expanded the growth of First Amendment applications to symbolic speech. The First Amendment Free Exercise clause allows for religions to be critiqued even in a place of worship. In the Supreme Court case Snyder versus Phelps decided in 2011, the Court ruled on an 8-1 vote that the Westboro Baptist Church was permitted to protest at a military funeral at the permitted distance without liability of intentional infliction of emotional distress. This is an example of how such highly-controversial views of the Westboro Baptist Church are protected by the First Amendment. In Thailand, the government takes significant social and political steps to prevent public criticism of the royal family and outlaws several rights such as flag burning, religious worship insults and Internet free speech communication.

Free Press: Several free press historic and current events of Thailand center on the “lèse-majesté” laws. The laws cause some journalists to self-censor content. Government officials urge the media not to cover arrests relating to the laws and the killing of investigative journalists. The government also discourages media reports on the jail time many face for content found offensive to the royal family. The Thailand Constitution language regarding free press sounds relatively similar to that of the U.S., but the government executes greater censorship of the press in Thailand.

In the U.S., journalists are able to post content freely as long as something is not libelous. Libel is identified as a fact that is published, identifies the victim, is defamatory, false and the publisher is at fault. The Supreme Court started to interpret libel as a result of the Sullivan case which moved the topic from a state issue to a federal standard. American journalists do not really exercise self-censorship because the media have historically been protected by the Court as watchdogs of politics and corruption. Defamation in the U.S. is something that tends to harm someone’s reputation which is false and allows the plaintiff to sue for civil monetary damages or criminal offenses of jail time. The idea is to have a punishment that will not cause self-censorship or prior restraint. The media in America is expected to uncover corruption and arrests of public officials. Although public officials personally might not want their extramarital affairs or money laundering in the news, the press has the freedom to do investigative reporting without much fear of persecution from the government. The Sullivan standard makes it difficult for public officials to win a libel suit because they must prove actual malice. Journalists in America do not have to fear a 15-year jail sentence due to government official criticism in the press guaranteed in the First Amendment.

The Sixth Amendment allows all American citizens the right to a speedy and public trial. This differs from Thailand where people can be put in jail quickly for up to 20 years by associating with or posting content the royal family finds offensive. Americans have greater press freedom than the Thai people, which allows for public debate and exchange of all ideas. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, five journalists were killed in America since 1992. According to the same source, 10 journalists have been killed in Thailand in the same time frame and 50 percent of them were reporting on corruption. These statistics show the ever-present danger of free press restrictions for Thai people. They risk their lives to report on topics such as political corruption which people have the freedom to cover every day in America.


Thailand’s free speech and free press rights are stated in the country’s Constitution under similar language of the U.S., but the government enforcement of censorship makes Thailand more restrictive. Americans experience expansion of rights due to the First Amendment and Supreme Court protection of civil liberties found explicitly in the Bill of Rights. The U.S. is not perfect on free speech or free press issues. The U.S. has a history of censorship ranging from strict English common law geared to punish defamatory statements in the 1700s to the Red Scare regarding communism in the 1950s. The U.S. is ranked 47th on the Reporters Without Borders Free Press Index and is tied with Argentina and Romania. Several African, Asian and European countries are ranked higher than America such as Tanzania, Taiwan and Ireland. The U.S. has more free speech and free press protection than a country like Thailand, which was ranked 137 on the same list. Thailand needs to abolish the “lèse-majesté” laws if the country wants to improve free speech and free press at a basic level to trickle into other expression aspects of society.

Flag photo courtesy of Wikipedia and permitted under the Creative Commons


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