On the Meaning of the Term “Unsubstantiated”

A curious word keeps popping up with respect to the human rights criticisms of Thaksin’s regime in Thailand, discussed in the previous post: “unsubstantiated.”

Last week I wrote to City asking for an explanation of why a story on the club web site had referred to the human rights criticims of Thaksin as “unsubstantiated,” when in fact the extra-judicial killings of 2003 and the associated criticism of Thailand have been fairly carefully documented almost from the beginning by news organizations around the world, and are routinely reported and described as fact by journalists and academics who study Thailand.

As is the club’s practice, in fairly short order I received a polite response from City spokesperson Paul Tyrell reading as follows:

Last week’s BBC Radio programme revealed no new allegations about Dr Thaksin but merely stated that Human Rights Watch had written to the Premier League, claiming it was inappropriate for him to own our Club.

Every single allegation cited by HRW and Amnesty International against Dr Thaksin is unsubstantiated. If any pressure groups has new evidence, they should make it public. Repeating unfounded allegations besmirches the name of a human being who has never been convicted of any offence and violates his human rights.”

This is in some ways a remarkably bold statement—every single allegation is said to be “unsubstantiated.” It again calls into question the meaning of the word; the common dictionary meaning is “unsupported by other evidence.”

Yet Human Rights Watch’s letter to the Premier League, as posted online, contained links to a sixty page document discussing the war on drugs, a seventy-one page document critically discussing the government’s conflict in the South, and an additional shorter document discussing the 2004 disappearance of a prominent Muslim lawyer (acknowledged by Thaksin to have been brought about by government officials).

The war on drugs report is sobering reading—I recommend going to the case studies section first—and is the result of careful research, including first hand interviews as well as review of media reports and official government statements. To be fair, it’s not clear if HRW forwarded these documents to the Premier League with its letter.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem reasonable to call the charges “unsubstantiated,” in the common use of the term. Perhaps Mr. Tyrell means that HRW has not shown Thaksin to be directly responsible for any particular killing; fair enough, but that is not one of the allegations being made. Rather, the charges are that Thaksin is generally responsible for what happened under his government.

Alternatively, Mr. Tyrell may mean that the assembled evidence isn’t sufficient to convict anyone in a court of law. That too would be a plausible claim, albeit a judgment call for legal scholars, not football press relations persons.

If that is what is meant, however, it simply underscores the minimal ethical standard City and the Premier League appear to be applying in this case: unless there is sufficient evidence to convict in an actual court of law, the mass of reporting on the events of 2003 can simply be set aside, and the journalistic and scholarly consensus that the 2003 war on drugs was, as a Freedom House study from 2005 put it, “the most serious assault on civil liberties in modern Thai history,” simply ignored.

Some may argue that this is the only reasonable position the league and its club can take; hence the significance of the Premier League’s statement earlier this week that it would not act against Thaksin on this matter unless advised to by the government. And, to be fair, the proper onus of assessment in cases like this should indeed fall on the government, not on football teams or the league.

In the meantime, the most admirable part of Mr. Tyrell’s statement is his invitation to the human rights groups to make any “new evidence” available. (Does the use of the term “new evidence” mean that officials at City are thoroughly familiar with the “old” evidence assembled by HRW and other groups?)

Will such groups take up the challenge? And if they do, will officials at City study the evidence presented carefully, with an “open mind” (to quote Thaksin’s lawyer), or will they be instructed to routinely dismiss all such charges as “unsubstantiated”?

Those are intriguing and important questions for the club and its reputation going forward.

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2 Comments on “On the Meaning of the Term “Unsubstantiated””

  1. Andrea Says:

    Well, I am amazed this blog is not generating more debate, but well done for setting it up anyway. Keep it up!

  2. Bangkokblue Says:

    It was quite a surprise to me to see how seamlessly Paul Tyrrell slipped out of his role as PR man for a Mid-table premiership football club to become a slick spin-doctor with an exceptional talent for dispensing misinformation on behalf of an extremely dangerous human rights criminal. Given Thaksin’s exceptional talent for manipulation of the media and “the masses” this must be a happy marriage forged in hell.

    Thaksin and his club (play-thing) are using the age old tactic of telling the same lies repeatedly and confidently until the people who feel the lies are in their best interest repeat them to to their compatriots and thereby strengthen the charade. The repeated use ofwords such as unsubstantiated is an excellent example.

    A more disturbing example in my opinion was Tyrrell’s statement “These allegations have only begun to emerge since the military government took power “. I was well aware of the majority of the human rights violations committed by Thaksin while he was still in power, as I am sure you were Thad. I am also very confident that Mr Tyrrell is well aware that Thaksin’s human rights abuse was exposed by Amnesty intnl and others years before the coup took place. So what was his purpose behind the statement? Essentialy he, and apparently the club, have made the judgement that they can feed abject lies to the fans and, that the fans are stupid enough to swallow anything because ‘Frank’ has spent a lot of money on players, and football fans aren’t on the whole that smart or politically sophisticated.

    Depressingly it appears that the majority of City fans are happy to fall into line and except to a large degree except whatever the club, and the conspiracy of self-interest, and wilful ignorance dictates i most advantageous. This suspension of reality is really pretty scary as far as I’m concerned. People who would have had almost no reason whatsoever to take any interest in Thai politics 12 months ago are now vehemently defending and even praising a man who was condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as “a human rights abuser of the worst kind”. Given that Amnesty international are a Nobel peace prize winning organisation respected across the planet by people of all faiths, cultures and political persuasions, I would be fascinated to know why some City fans believe that the allegations are unsubstantiated, or indeed why such an organisation would spend their valuable time and resources concocting untruths about an ‘innocent’ political leader?

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