Criticism of the Thai government's crackdown using the lese majesté law forbidding insults against the monarchy was voiced at the International Publishers Congress in Bangkok today (25th March).
Article 112 of the Thai penal code carries a maximum of seven years imprisonment for anyone insulting the king, queen or crown prince.
Ola Wallin, chair of the IPA's Freedom to Publish committee, said he wished to express the committee's concern about censorship in Thailand, citing the case of Kingdom in Crisis by British author Andrew MacGregor Marshall, banned in the country last year. "The Freedom to Publish committee regrets it [the ban]," Wallin said. "Society requires a free book market and we urge the Thai government to abolish censorship."
A book by a Thai writer - S Sivaraksa's Lok Khrap Sangkhom Thai (meaning Uncovering Thai Society) - has also been banned.
Thai publisher Trasvin Jittidecharak, chair of the Congress organising committee, said the enforcement of the 1957 law affected both fiction and non-fiction publishers. "We can criticise a lot of issues - the economy, even the military government and the prime minister - [but] in our case you can't even insult the monarchy in a novel....Academic and scholarly publishers feel very threatened because they can't criticise freely," she said.
Eight new digital economy bills being drafted have also attracted criticism on privacy grounds, she added.
"Under this government, if you ask me whether we have freedom of speech and freedom to publish, [the answer is] no," she said. "Are we comfortable? No. Are we fighting? Yes, but subtly because we are under martial law. We all fight in different ways."
Jittidecharak said that her colleagues at Thailand's publishers and booksellers association PUBAT and at the country's writers association were all "very concerned" about the situation, but that they could not issue a public statement because of a long-established law saying no association may undertake political activities. "Any wrong move and they take our license away," she noted.
However Chinese dissident writer Bei Ling observed that it was still possible to host a discussion of this topic within Thailand, while such a thing would not be possible within China. Bei Ling, who was imprisoned in China after publishing a literary magazine, criticised the country's strict censorship system by which only government publishing houses can obtain an ISBN, while booksellers and printers can incur punishments for distributing or printing self-published work.
From Russia, Irina Prokhorova, editor-in-chief of the New Literary Observer publishing house, said that while now there was no official censorship as in Soviet times, public trials - such as on the grounds of blasphemy - were creating "a feeling of censorship, people start to be afraid to publish experimental books and expect unpleasant consequences."
Although the book market still preserves its independence, censorship therefore exists in a "strange and twisted way", she said. "I am more or less optimistic that we will find a way...We need solidarity from the world community," Prokhorova added.