Move to outlaw hate speech in Thailand needs careful handling

Move to outlaw hate speech in Thailand needs careful handling

The Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) has proposed that hate speech be illegal - to prevent social division and hatred in society.

If passed, the legislation will call for restrictions on hate speech in all media.

The committee cited development over the recent years in which various forms of media - from cable and satellite television to radio, print and online media - had been used by various political groups to incite hatred against their opponents, thus, drawing the country into a political quagmire.

CDC spokesman Kamnoon Sidhisamarn said the definition of what constitutes hate speech would come at a later date.

Kamnoon said the restrictions were needed because "hate speech has been the root cause of social conflict [in the country]."

First of all, it is absurd to blame "hate speech" for being the root cause of the current conflict.

The political crisis in Thailand didn't start with hate speech. Hate speech is just a product of political selfishness on all sides.

Perhaps Kamnoon and the CDC should ask themselves about the cause and conditions that paved the way for the various political factions to make hateful remarks in their speeches.

But, he was right to say that there must be a balance between protecting citizens' freedom of expression and ensuring that society is protected from conflicts caused by hate speech.

The right balance, of course, requires the CDC to clearly define what constitutes hate speech. Claiming emotional distress is not good enough but urging supporters to do violent acts should be illegal.

There is a fine line between hate speech and freedom of expression. But the line must be drawn and carefully worded if we are to prevent the legislation from being exploited for political gain.

One existing law that has long been exploited for political gain by various sectors of society is Article 112 concerning lese majeste.

Recently, for example, a group of Democrat Party members were trying to get the police to press charges against a resident in Khon Kaen for wearing black in December, the commemorative month for Thai people marking the King's birthday. He was accused of being disrespectful to Thai tradition. Never mind that the person was going to a funeral.

Just about every pocket of the world community has its own set of taboos. Thailand is no different.

We have no problem with the fact that these taboos limit our space and freedom of expression because we acknowledge that this is the right thing to do. It also reflects that free speech is not absolute.

But if we are not flexible and refuse to acknowledge the evolution of language and terminology, as well as the context that we use for defining what constitutes hate speech or a taboo subject, we will face a great deal of difficulty in moving forward as a society.

For example, the word "katoey" has been frowned upon of late. The politically correct term is GLBT - for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Further, words like "jek" or "khaek" in reference to ethnic Chinese and Muslims are no longer acceptable in public.

Besides the possibility of hate speech being exploited for political gain, another point of concern is who gets to define what constitutes hate speech?

This is not to say that coming up with legislation to prohibit hate speech is impossible. For the legislation to be sound, we must clearly define what hate speech is. We cannot allow politicians and public figures to equate speeches that they hate to hate speech.

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