New amendments to Thailand’s Computer Crime Act will allow government officials to further restrict free speech and retaliate against activists, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Changes to the law governing cyber crimes likely will increase censorship, HRW said Wednesday in a statement. The Thai National Legislative Assembly adopted the amendments unanimously on Dec. 16.
HRW’s statement focused on Articles 14(1) and (2), claiming they provide grounds for the government to prosecute people for any content that officials designate as false or distorted. The articles impose a maximum penalty of five years in prison and fines for convictions.
“Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns that Thai authorities, private companies and individuals often retaliate against those reporting alleged human rights violations by filing defamation lawsuits, accusing activists and victims of making false statements,” the global rights watchdog said in its statement.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, whose military government seized power in 2014, challenged critics’ claims that the changes would violate free speech.
“No one wants to police social media because it’s tiring,” Prayuth said on Tuesday, according to the Thai news website Khaosod English. “Society should help protect each other and create peace.”
The junta had filed criminal charges against many critics who posted commentary on social media alleging corruption by government leaders, according to HRW.
“The Thai military government has now given itself sweeping power to monitor, search, and acquire information, invading people’s privacy on a massive scale,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director.
Articles 16(1) and (2) of the law state that the court can order information found to be false and having caused damage to other persons or the public to be removed from the Internet and deleted from computer systems, HRW said.
Arbitrary enforcement would have “dire consequences on research and reporting on contentious topics of public concern, including incidents related to serious state-sponsored rights violations, such as the 2003 ‘drugs war,’ the 2010 violent political confrontations, and abusive counterinsurgency operations in the southern border provinces,” HRW claimed.
‘Amendments should be scrapped’
The statement from HRW echoed concerns raised by CPJ on the day the legislature approved the amendments.
The amendments seek to harmonize Thai law with technological advances, but, in doing so, includes provisions that invite abuse, the committee said.
“Thailand’s cybercrime law was already a grave threat to journalists who work online. These vague and overbroad amendments will only accentuate the danger,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative said in a statement issued Dec. 16.
“Thailand’s military government consistently conflates commentary with criminal activity, and these amendments will give officials even wider powers to crush dissent. These amendments should be scrapped, and any future changes to the law should prioritize explicit guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression,” he added.
CPJ claims the junta has broadened Internet censorship since the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct. 13.
The Associated Press reported that Thai authorities had blocked access to 1,300 websites in the month following the king’s death over content deemed anti-royal – more sites than were censored in the previous five years combined.
Previous CPJ research showed that officials had used the cybercrime law to enforce the nation’s strict Lese-Majeste anti-royal defamation law.
Earlier this month, a Thai activist was arrested after he allegedly shared a BBC News profile of King Maha Vajiralongkorn that was published by its London-based Thai-language service, BBC Thai, after he ascended the throne on Dec. 1. The activist, Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, was the first person charged under Lese-Majeste since the new king succeeded his father.