Facebook acknowledged Tuesday it had shut down a popular page critical of the Thai monarchy at the government’s request, but said it would challenge the order in court as an obstacle to free speech and doing business in Thailand.
The social media giant said it had moved to restrict access to the page of the Royalist Marketplace group with more than 1 million members. The Facebook page is hosted by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai lecturer at Kyoto University and noted critic of the Thai monarchy.
Facebook was ordered to block the page amid a groundswell of youth-led anti-government protests that have also called for reforming the all-powerful monarchy.
“After careful review, Facebook has determined that we are compelled to restrict access to content which the Thai government has deemed to be illegal,” a spokesperson for the Silicon Valley powerhouse said in a statement to Thai media on Tuesday. “Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law and have a chilling effect on people’s ability to express themselves.”
Facebook, however, warned it would fight back and that Thailand risked losing the company as an investor.
“We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request,” Facebook said. “Excessive government actions like this also undermine our ability to reliably invest in Thailand, including maintaining an office, safeguarding our employees, and directly supporting businesses that rely on Facebook.”
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha defended his government’s move to order Facebook to block the Royalist Marketplace page.
“In regards to the handling of those pages, we follow the laws – seeking court orders – and never exercised the so-called dictatorship’s power, which I don’t have,” Prayuth told reporters. “If they sue us, we will fight according to Thai laws. Freedom must not breach Thai laws.”
If Facebook faced any possible legal action, this was due to content on Royalist Marketplace’s page and not because of the government, he said.
Thailand’s monarchy is shielded by Lese-Majeste, a law that strictly guards against royal defamation. People convicted of speech perceived as critical of the royals can be sent to prison for up to 15 years. But critics say that Thailand’s Sedition Act, rather than Lese-Majeste, has become a tool used to suppress dissidents lately.
Prayuth has said King Maha Vajiralongkorn had asked him to reduce the exercise of the law against royal defamation. About a dozen people have been charged with sedition since Aug. 3, when the anti-government protestors expanded their demands to include reforming the status of the monarchy.
As the protests continue, the crackdown on social media companies has been stepped up. Thai authorities recently said they will obtain court orders to deny access to posts and URLs on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that they believe insult the monarchy. These authorities have also threatened to sue these social media platforms if they don’t comply.
Puttipong Punnagun, the minister for digital economy and society, said he already sent court orders to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter
“We sent court orders to the platform operators to delete misinformation content within 15 days,” Puttipong said. “If they erase them, we won’t sue them. There were 1,120 [urls] deemed royally defaming.”
The order to block access to the Facebook page hosted by Pavin drew a sharp and swift response from New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Thailand’s government is again abusing its overbroad and rights-abusing laws to force Facebook to restrict content that is protected by the human right to free speech. Make no mistake, it is Thailand that is breaking the law here – international law protecting freedom of expression,” John Sifton, the group’s Asia Advocacy director, said in a statement.
“Facebook should fight the government’s demands in every forum it can, to protect Thai people’s human rights. Concerned governments around the world should protest Thailand’s abusive threats,” he said.
‘This is 2020, you can’t hide information’
Pavin, for his part, said he would not buckle under pressure.
“I vowed to fight to defend freedom of speech to criticize the monarchy in my country,” the academic said on his personal Facebook page after his group’s page was blocked.
Pavin then started a new private group, also on Facebook, and more than 640,000 members signed up.
“The more you try to block the group, the more eager the people want to know,” he said on his personal Facebook page. “This is 2020, you can’t hide information.”
Pavin has had run-ins with the Thai government in the past. In April 2017, the government banned citizens from interacting online with him and two other outspoken critics of the monarchy, according to the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.
This year, the lecturer has lent and continues to voice support for the student-led anti-government protests. The protests, called the “Free Youth Movement” have become the “Free People Movement.”
Protestors have three main demands. They want the government to stop harassing dissidents, they are demanding Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha dissolve the parliament and hold new elections and they are calling for amendments to the military-backed constitution which allows senators to vote for a candidate for premier.
Since Aug. 3, the “Free People Movement” has been agitating to curtail the monarchy’s power. Protesters say the monarchy has more power than the system allows. They advocate a constitutional monarchy with the king as head of state under the constitution.
In a separate development Tuesday, a group of royalists submitted a letter to the representative of the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok, demanding it muffle Pavin, sack him from Kyoto University and deport him to Thailand.
“The Japanese government must show sincerity that it doesn’t give Pavin support,” Pansuwan Na Kaew said in a statement read out to a Japanese official. “The people of Thailand hope for a response from the Japanese government.”