Thai Court Blocks Govt Crackdown on Pandemic Reporting

Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2021-08-06
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Thai Court Blocks Govt Crackdown on Pandemic Reporting Thai journalists try to get pictures and videos of musician Chaiamorn “Ammy” Kaewwiboonpan as he leaves the Bangkok Remand Prison after being granted bail on charges related to the burning of a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, May 11, 2021.
AFP

In a rare move, a Thai court on Friday blocked a new order by the prime minister to crack down on alleged fake news which, he had said, causes “public fears” or “undermines the state’s security” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Civil Court in Bangkok filed the injunction in response to a petition filed on Monday by 12 Thai media portals who asked that it revoke Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s decree, which went into force last week. No date has been set to consider the revocation request.

In its ruling, the court noted that the government decree would allow “the deprivation of rights and freedom of the plaintiffs and people as protected by the constitution.”

“[T]he phrase ‘information having a risk of frightening people’ as indicated in such [an] article is of an ambiguous character and opens a possibility to a broad interpretation,” the court’s injunction said.

This would render “the plaintiffs, people and those working in media field unconfident about expressing their opinion and communicating in accordance with the freedom protected by … the constitution,” the court declared.

It also said that the decree did not authorize Prayuth, as prime minister, to suspend internet services.

“The importance of the internet access is recognized throughout the society, particularly, in the current situation of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and of the enforcement of lockdown measures,” the court said, adding the government was capable of educating people during the pandemic.

“[T]he suspension of the enforcement of such regulation does not pose any obstacle to public administration in emergency situations and public interest,” the court said.

‘Emergency state’

Prayuth, a former army chief and junta leader, signed the order which took effect on July 30 to prevent people “from presenting news, selling or disseminating papers or printing other materials which cause public fears, or distorted information to cause public confusion during the emergency state and undermine the state’s security or public morality in areas under the emergency decree.” 

The prime minister signed the emergency decree – a separate decree – in March 2020, during the early days of the pandemic in Thailand.

Through the newly signed decree, Prayuth empowered the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) to gather details about people or groups allegedly spreading distorted information and terminate their online connections.

The decree calls on the commission to promptly file its information to national police to begin legal action.

“Should any ISPs [internet security providers] refuse to comply, the NBTC shall take against action against them,” it said.

In a Facebook post on July 27, Prayuth said there had been widespread dissemination of false information or distortions of officials’ quotes by traditional and social-media users, leading to public misunderstanding.

“The Digital Economy and Society Ministry, the police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division and the national police bureau must take measures to promptly and attentively prosecute major disseminators – be [they] the media, celebs or Facebook page administrators – not small users,” Prayuth said in his post at the time.

Thapanee Eadsrichai, a co-founder of Reporter Production Co. Ltd., whose group is one of the 12 plaintiffs, thanked the court for its action.

“We media responsibly exercise rights and liberty. … Most importantly we wouldn’t make fake news because it is illegal,” she said.

“Look at the bright side, the court protects rights and freedom of the media and people, and freedom of expression and free flow of information especially amid multi-faceted disputes. Speaking truth shouldn’t cause a backfire as long as the media work responsibly,” Werayuth Theerakamol, a doctoral candidate in communication and media studies at Loughborough University in England, told BenarNews.

Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri, meanwhile, had little to say about the injunction.

“The government’s legal team is considering this matter … before any response could be made,” Anucha Burapachaisri told BenarNews. 

Last week after Prayuth signed order, Anucha said it was meant to curb fake news about COVID-19 and was not to be forced against professional media.

‘Latest attack’ on freedom

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch said 16 international human rights organizations had joined it to denounce Prayuth’s order, calling it the “government’s latest attack on the right to freedom of expression and information in Thailand.”

“The terms ‘fear,’ ‘security,’ ‘public order’ and ‘good morals’ used in the regulation are vague and overbroad. They are featured without a clear delineation of their scope, limit or definition, in contravention of the principle of legality, as required by the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights],” the New York-based rights watchdog said in a statement.

The signers noted there is a need to combat the spread of COVID-19 disinformation during the pandemic, but proportionate, constitutional measures should be taken against violators.

“Arbitrary and intrusive means that rely on criminal sanctions, onerous fines and suspension of IP addresses do not meet this threshold,” the statement said.

In another instance involving free-speech concerns, Amnesty International spoke out against Thai police fining one of its staff members for participating in a panel discussion last month. The discussion focused on the enforced disappearances of Thai activists, including Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who was abducted in Cambodia last year.

“Our member of staff was simply doing her job to raise awareness in Thailand of international human rights law,” Yamini Mishra, AI’s director for the Asia-Pacific, said in a statement without naming the staffer.

“The Thai authorities should not be fining her, the organizers or other panelists for simply speaking about the Thai authorities’ human rights obligations and the long history of enforced disappearances in this region,” Yamini said.

“The Thai authorities must stop issuing fines to people for peacefully exercising their human rights, and stop using the pandemic as an excuse to ramp up their repression.”

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