Thailand Film Censorship Laws
Film and Television Censorship Laws in Thailand
By John Fotiadis and Jonathan Englander of Atherton Legal Services.
The entertainment industry continues to grow here in Thailand and receive international recognition. Most recently, Apichat Weerasethakul is due congratulations for his film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past lives” which received the 2010 Cannes Film Festival top award. In his acceptance speech, Kuhn Weerasethakul dedicated the award to Thailand, but also criticized the censorship laws in Thailand as a severe restriction for filmmakers.
Thailand admittedly enforces many rules, which restrict the content that can be portrayed in not only films, but also on television, the internet and even in video games. Other governments adopt a laissez-faire policy with respect to content, permitting nearly all content free publication under the ambit of free speech. If such free speech treads on another’s right to privacy, reputation, or sense of decency, it is generally left to the courts to decide on a case-by-case basis whether free speech has gone too far. Even in cases where the courts do find an invasion of privacy or libel, the penalty is generally limited to civil damages. No criminal penalty is assessed (except, perhaps, in limited cases of certain forms of pornography or national security threats).
Perhaps owing to culture, Thailand takes a much more proactive role in defending privacy, reputation and decency. Content which affects privacy, reputation and/or public decency is not only subject to censorship, but also subject to private lawsuits as well as criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment.
Much discussion has been had in the international media regarding the lèse majesté rules censoring content which is deemed to “defame, insult, threaten or in any way violate the revered position of the King” and the royal family (1997 Constitution Section 8, Penal Code Sections 112, 133). Others may be unaware that censorship rules similarly protect foreign heads of state (Penal Code Sec. 133), foreign representatives to the Royal Court (Penal Code Sec. 134), and government officials acting within their duties (Penal Code Sec. 136). Content defaming individuals, whether private or public figures, is also prohibited (Penal Code Secs. 326-333).
Thailand’s censorship rules similarly protect the Thai flag from desecration (Penal Code Sec. 118), and the flags of friendly foreign states (Penal Code Sec. 135). [As a side note, this suggests that while the US Supreme Court has permitted the burning of the American flag in the United States, the same action could mandate criminal penalties here in Thailand.]
Similarly, Thailand censorship extends to protection of religion, without preferring Buddhism over other faiths (Penal Code Sec. 206).
Since 2001, the Thai government has also required that television programming block out scenes which depict the main character smoking (Tobbacco Control Act 1992, Sec. 8). However, this has not been extended to films, video games or the internet.
Of course, in commonality with the West, Thailand censors content that promotes terrorist activities (Penal Code Sec. 135/2) or is deemed obscene (Penal Code Sec. 287) including pornography in all forms.
Within Thailand, even critics of censorship often raise no objection to the principles that these laws seek to protect. Their objections principally lie with how these laws are interpreted and enforced. In relation to film and television media, these laws are enforced by the Film Censorship Board (FCB).
Through the FCB’s application of the above laws, a general policy has emerged in Thailand which governs whether films will be censored in part or banned entirely. By way of example, content of the following nature will be subject to censorship:
Any depictions of the King or any members of the royal family, including past members of the royal family, even in the most reverent manner, require approval prior to publication. (“Anna and the King,” a revival of the “King and I,” was denied permission to film in Thailand, and its exhibition was ultimately banned here as well).
Depictions of Buddhist monks in any manner other than absolute reverence. By way of example, a recent film was forced to edit a scene of monks playing a guitar as this was deemed inappropriate. Note, however, that the film entitled “Nak Prok” depicting robbers disguised as monks and originally banned in 2007 was permitted public release in 2010 utilizing the new ratings system, as further discussed below).
Depictions of Buddhist imagery in any manner other than absolute reverence. (Recent protests in Thailand surrounded a film entitled “Hollywood Buddha” in which one of the characters is depicted sitting on the head of a Buddha image).
Depictions/Suggestions of prostitution in Thailand. (Even documentaries which show scenes of prostitution or interview prostitutes in Thailand will be banned).
Content depicting sexual promiscuity, even in the absence of pornography.
This censorship policy is not only applied retroactively to films already made, but is also applied prospectively to any films sought to be shot in Thailand. The film permit application promulgated by the Thai Film Board requires filmmakers to warrant that that the final product “shall not adversely affect the national security, public order, good morals, environment and dignity of the Thai nation.”
As a further condition to obtaining the necessary license and permits to film in Thailand, regulations require that copies of the script must be submitted to the Film Board for advance review in compliance with the censorship policies discussed previously. Moreover, a representative of the Film Board is also entitled to be present during filming in order to ensure that the production actually follows the approved content of the script, and such representative must certify that the final product has been produced in compliance with all relevant regulations before it is allowed to be shown.
Filming in violation of these and related protocols may result in, among other things, denial or the revocation of the film permit, or an inability to export the final product for broadcast abroad. Serious violations may also result in criminal charges for crew and producers.
Recently, by virtue of the Motion Pictures and Video Act B.E. 2551 (2008), Thailand has introduced a rating system for films. The anticipation of some is that through a rating system, the Film Censorship Board will relax its control over films by leaving it to public viewers to decide for themselves whether they wish to view films that are rated as having objectionable content. In this way, a film which contains some nudity or excessive violence could be released unedited—but branded a 13+, 15+, 18+ or 20+ rating according to its content. The Thai film “Nak Prok” stands as an example of this flexibility. The film, originally banned from any play in Thailand owing to the unfavorable depiction of Buddhist monks, was permitted release in 2010 with an 18+ rating under the new law.
Still, while such rating system may permit some flexibility in the greyer areas, it will not open the door to content that squarely falls within the areas expressly prohibited by law.
In view of the above, no one denies that the Thai Government maintains much stricter controls over the release and production of films in Thailand than most other countries. But in the end, this is primarily the result of Thai cultural norms in which social etiquette is stricter than in other cultures. (For example, it is generally considered rude in Thai culture to say “no” to someone, even when the question prompts such a response). The resistance to greater freedom of expression, therefore, is coupled directly to a genuine concern for abandoning Thai values.