Thailand: Four Activists, Reporter Charged with Violating Referendum Law

Nontarat Phaicharoen
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160711-TH-dissident-620.jpg Thai dissidents are escorted from Ban Pong Police Station to a court in Ratchaburi, Thailand, following their arrest, July 11, 2016.
Courtesy Anon Nampa

With less than a month left until Thailand holds a controversial vote on a new constitution, four activists and a journalist on Monday appeared in a provincial court to face charges of breaching the nation’s referendum law, their lawyers said.

The five are the latest to be arrested in junta-governed Thailand over allegations of speaking out against a constitutional referendum set for Aug. 7.

They were produced before a judge in Ratchaburi province and were released after posting bail which was set at 140,000 baht (U.S. $3,982), Anon Nampa, a lawyer with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), told BenarNews. Ratchaburi is about 130 km (80 miles) west of Bangkok.

On Sunday, police in the Ratchaburi town of Ban Pong arrested Pakorn Areekul, Anucha Rungmorakot, Anan Lokete – who identify themselves as members of the New Democracy Movement – and Panuwat Songsawatchai, a student at Mae-Jo University in Chiang Mai, on suspicion of possessing documents deemed in violation of the referendum law.

Police arrested them after stopping and searching the car they were traveling in. A man identified as Taweesak Kerdpoka, a reporter for the news website Prachatai who was also in the car, was charged with the four activists.

The activists reportedly were carrying pamphlets and stickers urging voters to vote “no” on Aug. 7.

“The TLHR law team sought bail for them. Each was released on 140,000 baht bail,” Anon said, adding that the bail money for the four was raised through public donations via a TLHR-run foundation, and that Prachatai bailed out its reporter.

‘What will come next?’

The news of the arrests of the activists and reporter angered NGOs that champion free speech.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on Thai authorities to drop charges against Taweesak, the Prachatai reporter.

“It is unacceptable that local officials, acting under the junta’s authority, fail to distinguish between political activists and a journalist who is covering their activities,” Benjamin Ismail, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said in a statement.

“As if violating the fundamental freedoms of assembly and opinion were not enough, the authorities are compounding their crimes by also violating freedom of information and media freedom. What will come next? Arresting the journalists who cover these arbitrary arrests? The government must tolerate the media reporting of the critical views of opposition,” he added.

In a joint statement, two Thai media association made a similar plea, calling for the charges to be dropped against Taweesak.

“To reason that traveling in the same car with news sources is illegal is unfounded. Because in certain scenarios, reporters may need to board the same car, which is normal,” said the statement from the Thai Journalists Association and Thai Broadcast Journalists Association.

No vote ‘not illegal’: activist

The upcoming vote will mark the first time that Thai will be going to the polls since the military seized power in a coup in May 2014. But the atmosphere in the build-up to the referendum has been the opposite of conducive to free speech, with authorities threatening to arrest anyone who campaigns against the proposed constitution or who criticizes it.

The draft charter has drawn widespread criticism because a “yes” vote would clear the way for a new constitution that would allow the junta to hand-pick all 250 members of the Thai Senate, including six officers from the military’s top brass.

In the run-up to the referendum, the junta has banned criticism of the proposed charter through a new law that prohibits “misleading or rude speech” related to the issue. In particular, Clause 2 in Section 61 of the referendum law’s prohibits dissemination of messages deemed to be fact-distorting, violent, aggressive, rude, seductive or that could intimidate voters.

Anyone convicted of violation this clause faces up to 10 years in prison.

The activist Pakorn Areekul told supporters and reporters that “to vote ‘no’ is not illegal” as he was escorted from the Ban Pong police station, according to news reports.

In late June, 13 members of the New Democracy Movement and of a Thai labor organization were rounded up in Bangplee market in Samut Prakarn, south of Bangkok, and charged with defying the junta’s order prohibiting political gathering of more than five people, and distributing leaflets in violation of the referendum law.

Last week, the Bangkok Special Prison released seven of them – all students associated with New Democracy Movement.


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