Freedom of information during Tham Luang Nang Non rescue

Government Information, International issues, Privacy

I recently tore through The Boys in the Cave: Deep Inside the Impossible Rescue in Thailand by Matt Gutman, which is an in-depth recounting of the rescue of the Moo Pa (aka the Wild Boars) soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand in 2018. If you’re not familiar, but don’t want to invest the time to read the book, there’s also a good episode of Drain the Oceans on Disney+ that discusses the rescue. 

Rescue equipment in Tham Luang entrance

The short version of the story is that 12 boys and their soccer coach were exploring the Tham Luang Nang Non cave when earlier than expected seasonal rain blocked their route out, and they had to be rescued by cave divers in a very intense rescue operation. If the drama of the rescue itself isn’t enough, the book is also worth reading because of the look it gives at the importance of international cooperation and the problem solving aspect alone; this was not an “ordinary” cave dive (if there is such a thing), and the planning and discussion that goes in to the rescue is impressive in and of itself. 

I’m guessing at this point you’re asking what this has to do with intellectual freedom. On the surface, nothing. However, as a librarian, one of the things that jumped out at me was Gutman’s brief mentions of the secrecy and lack of information sharing around the rescue. For example, the media did not know about the actual extraction planning or launch of the rescue until 2 hours after it began. (Gutman, page 217) He also highlights the challenges this originally created in rescue planning, as various groups of rescuers were not communicating with each other. 

Thailand ranks 137th (out of 180 countries) on this year’s World Press Freedom Index (the US is 44th, for comparison). Reporters Without Borders reports that the “long promised elections” in March 2019 “made no difference to the total control” of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the army general who led the 2014 coup and is now prime minister (and defence minister and chief of police). They describe “harsh reprisals” for criticism of the government and “draconian legislation.” In addition, the Thai regime allows other countries access to arrest fleeing dissenting journalists. 

Even the boys’ parents did not know about the rescue operation planning and were, it appears, not really asked for consent. And they didn’t tell the parents that the boys would be sedated during the rescue. “The Thai government was not asking their permission, it was informing them what would happen with their sons. It was the only way it could have worked. There was no time for debate or dissent.” (Gutman, page 212). 

Even during the rescue little information was shared. For example, Gutman says “the parents didn’t know” as the boys were extracted, “which meant that until this moment the parents of the children who had been in the hospital for two days had no idea if their own children were safe.” (Gutman, page 275). 

He points out that this is the “kind of policy – benefiting the collective, but temporarily damaging to the individual – that could only be pulled off in a country that lacked some of the transparency of a democracy.” (Gutman, page 275). 

The Hindustan Times says the “lack of information….baffled observers given that the team were extracted safely.” South China Morning Post describes the rescue as “shrouded” in secrecy. 

Gutman’s right; it’s hard to imagine the US government not telling parents that their children had been safe and were in the hospital for two days. (And I can only imagine the furor that would occur if they did!) It’s hard to imagine the government managing to pull off the planning and extraction with so little information being shared with the press, for that matter. Reporters didn’t know “the order in which the boys had been extracted (that secret was held for another six weeks.” (Gutman, page 275). 

Soldiers from the 17th infantry regiment deployed to assist at Tham Luang cave

The idea of children being drugged without their parents knowledge or consent, even in these extreme circumstances, is almost impossible (for me anyway) to imagine here. (In fact, the government told the press that the boys were “given a ‘minor tranquiliser’” to help calm their nerves. But he denied they were knocked out,” according to the Hindustan Times. According to Gutman, the boys were unconscious, dosed with Xanax and Ketamine.) 

Even in the US, though, we do allow restraint of the press in rare circumstances – national security is probably the most obvious. And, of course, the government doesn’t always tell us everything. I think most of us can agree that there are at least some circumstances where secrecy is warranted. Was this one of them? 

Probably not with regard to the parents. In the US we have a constitutional right to parent our children, usually including the right to make medical decisions. And a basic, bedrock principle of making medical decisions is informed consent. Even if a court were to find the state has a right to deny parents’ decision making power in this very unique circumstance, I cannot imagine that would include the ability to withhold the information. 

However, what about with regard to the rest of us? The courts have largely held that journalists do have the right to report minor names and events regarding minors in most cases, so the press certainly would have a right to cover the event, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a right to get information from the government. While there are lots of potential legal angles here, the most obvious is probably the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which allows “FOIA requests” for information from the government. And ultimately FOIA requests are rarely immediate, and are subject to exemptions, including exemption 6 which protects information about individuals in personnel, medical and “similar files” disclosure of which would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” and exemption 7 which covers various types of law enforcement records. So, ultimately, FOIA would likely not get the press the information immediately and even information released later could be limited to protect the boys’ privacy. 

However, all that being said, I expect the government would still share more information with us than the Taiwanese government did with their public during the rescue, at least generally. They likely wouldn’t disclose the condition of specific boys, but I suspect we would have known about planning earlier in the process and likely would have known prior to the beginning of the extractions. Of course, none of this touches on to what extent this information should be shared – that’s a whole different ball of wax. 

Either way, though, it was really interesting to think about this specific example of how the dynamic between the press, the government, and the law can play out in national emergencies, and how this particular scenario might have played out in the US.  

For libraries, especially those that serve as government document depositories, I think it’s a good reminder of the importance of transparency and access to information – and that access and sharing of information isn’t necessarily the default in other parts of the world. Advocating for the openness of, protecting, and preserving information is a key role of libraries, and it is one we cannot take for granted. We’re lucky in the US compared to other countries, but sometimes we can do better, and should be diligent to maintain – and advocate for – the freedoms we do have. This can mean advocacy for open government, and it can mean modeling open government in our public libraries. It also means continuing to advocate against censorship and book banning. Whether in a crisis or our daily operations, let’s continue to protect freedom of information.

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