A coalition of seven human rights organisations on Wednesday (4 August) urged the government of Thailand to repeal several laws that largely stifle the freedom of expression of individuals and independent media.
The ASEAN Regional Coalition for the #StopDigitalDictatorship campaign comprises the Manushya Foundation, Access Now, ALTSEAN-Burma, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), the Institute of Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), PEN International, and Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet).
The Thai government, they said, have failed to comply with its international human rights obligations by imposing undemocratic regulations, orders and restrictive laws.
Such laws include the 2005 Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation (Emergency Decree), the Computer Crime Act (CCA), and the royal defamation (lèse-majesté) provision under Thailand’s Criminal Code, which grant the authorities sweeping powers to crack down on freedom of information online and suppress critical expression.
“We call on the government of Thailand to uphold its international human rights obligations under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),” the groups said.
Both protect the right to freedom of expression of individuals as well as that of the press, including their right to seek, receive and impart information through the media, including online, they added.
“We also urge the government to protect human rights in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” the organisations said.
Even accurate information on COVID-19 may be targeted by Regulation No. 29: ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship
In their joint statement, the groups also called on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s administration to immediately repeal Regulation No. 29, was issued under Section 9 of the Emergency Decree on 29 July.
The regulation compels internet service providers (ISPs) to check the IP addresses of online users who post any news or information related to the COVID-19 pandemic that “may create fear among the people” and to subsequently suspend their internet services.
The decree bans the reporting, distribution or dissemination of “any book, publication, or any other media containing text” that “may create fear” or “that are intended to spread inaccurate news/information to generate misunderstanding about the emergency situation with adverse impact on national security, public order, or public morality”.
Highlighting the extremely broad scope of the phrase “create fear”, the coalition warned that such a regulation could target even accurate information regarding COVID-19.
It also shortens the processes of censoring online content “by allowing for the blocking of users’ internet access without any independent oversight nor legal accountability”, they said.
“It also empowers the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to instruct ISPs to track IP addresses from which prohibited information has been posted.
“The ISPs are then required to report findings to the NBTC and to immediately suspend the internet service of end-users.
“Moreover, relevant information will be forwarded by the NBTC to the police for further legal action, and online users violating the regulation can be prosecuted under Section 18 of the Emergency Decree, which provides for imprisonment of up to two years and/or a fine of up to 40,000 baht.
“ISPs also risk losing their operating licenses and could face legal action if they fail to comply with the regulation,” the coalition added.
Citing legal analysis by iLaw, the groups said that the powers granted to the Thai government under this regulation contravene Section 9 of the Emergency Decree, which does not confer the government such blanket power to suspend internet services.
“The suspension of communication services, as laid out in Section 11 of the Emergency Decree, shall be invoked only during a ‘Severe State of Emergency’, an exceptional situation which needs a prior formal declaration. No such declaration has been made at time of writing,” they said.
Regulations punishing those who spread information that create “fear” already in place prior to Regulation No. 29
On 10 July, Regulation No. 27 under the Emergency Decree was announced and came into force on 12 July, punishing those disseminating information that provokes “fear” or “misunderstanding” or “affects national security or public order or the good morals of the people” with a two-year imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 40,000 baht, the coalition noted.
A Facebook post by the Prime Minister on 27 July also ordered government agencies and departments to prosecute individuals, including journalists, celebrities and social media administrators, for spreading “fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic that might cause public confusion during the pandemic, they said.
This public threat came after 25 celebrities, influencers and public figures were investigated for voicing their concerns about Thailand’s worsening COVID-19 crisis and criticising the government’s poor vaccination plan.
The same month, 18-year-old rapper Danupa “Milli” Khanatheerakul was fined 2,000 baht after criticising the government’s response to the pandemic on social media.
The lack of clarity as to what constitutes “fake news” or information provoking “fear” and affecting “national security” opens the door to subjective interpretation, allowing authorities to arbitrarily enforce the provisions and target free expression, including legitimate criticisms of the government’s handling of the pandemic and even information that is factually accurate, said the coalition.
“This is a clear example of the Thai government’s authoritarian attempt to control information online, justifying such interference with illegitimate reasons under international law,” they said.
The regulation can also be instrumentalised as a weapon against public opinions and media freedom, and is therefore not in compliance with international human rights norms, said the coalition.
“It clearly undermines the ability of journalists to report freely on matters of public interest, and its disproportionate restrictions on freedom of expression and the free flow of information under the pretext of COVID-19 cannot be justified,” they said.
Dr. Boon Vanasin, chairman of Thonburi Healthcare Group, responded to a lawsuit report filed against him by the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) for his comment about the procurement of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, by saying that it was a good opportunity for the truth to be disclosed by the court.
On 2 August, representatives from major Thai news agencies stood in unity against the new regulation by filing a civil lawsuit against the Prime Minister over the legality, necessity and proportionality of the provisions mandating the suspension of internet services in order to suppress so-called “fake news” or any accurate information creating “fear”. The court has accepted the petition.
“In June 2021, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society warned of legal action against Facebook for refusing to comply with court orders to close the accounts of eight individuals who had allegedly posted false information and criticised the monarchy or the government. This new regulation is an illustration of the growing digital dictatorship over tech companies in Thailand,” said the coalition.
Thai govt should stop pursuing legal action against individuals involved in disseminating legitimate information, cease pressuring tech companies and ISPs to moderate or remove online content: Coalition
Other than the repeal of the relevant regulations under the Emergency Decree and other aforementioned laws that curtail freedom of expression and independent media, the coalition also urged Prayut’s government to avoid “broadly applying and interpreting criminal provisions under the Emergency Decree” to punish the dissemination of legitimate information.
The Thai government should also abstain from requiring or pressuring technology companies, internet service providers or other telecommunications companies to moderate or remove online content, track users’ IP addresses or suspend internet services, in contravention of the rights to free expression and information and privacy.
All legal action and proceedings against individuals facing investigation, charges or prosecution initiated by the authorities over such individuals’ involvement in activities that are protected by international human rights law should be dropped, they said.
The protection of media professionals who expose governmental shortcomings or failures or who merely report on COVID-19-related news should also be strengthened, the coalition said.
Additionally, the Thai government must also put in place measures to combat disinformation and misinformation are in line with international human rights obligations and the rule of law, they stressed.