Thailand clamps down on free speech over COVID-19 outbreak


Human Rights Watch (HRW) expressed concerns that Thailand was clamping down on free speech amid the COVID-19 crisis, in a recent report titled, “Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Response”.

Whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists have faced retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they criticised government response to the outbreak.

Thai authorities also threatened some medical staff with disciplinary action, including termination of employment contracts and revocation of their licenses, for speaking out about the severe shortage of essential supplies in hospitals across the country.

A state of emergency, slated to go into effect on March 26, has also heightened concerns of greater repression of free speech.

“Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech.”

On March 23, police arrested Danai Ussama at his art gallery in Phuket, and brought him to the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok. He was charged with violating section 14(2) of the Computer-Related Crime Act for “putting into a computer system false computer data in a manner that is likely to cause panic in the public.”

If found guilty, he faces up to five years in prison and a fine up to B100,000 (US$3,050).

The charge is based on a complaint that Airports of Thailand PCL, the national airport operator, filed against Danai for a March 16 post on Facebook. Using the alias “Zen Wide,” Danai wrote that upon return from Barcelona, he and other passengers on his flight did not encounter any COVID-19 screening at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The Airports of Thailand PCL alleged his post is not factual and caused public panic, and misled people into thinking that Suvarnabhumi Airport had failed to effectively employ COVID-19 screening.

Concerns about government restrictions on free speech significantly increased when Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency on March 24. During a news conference, he said, “After a state of emergency is announced everyone must be careful about social media misinformation … the media and all of those who use social media to distort information will be scrutinized.”

On March 25, Prime Minister Prayut issued a list of prohibitions under the state of emergency, including vague and overbroad restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom:“Reporting or spreading of information regarding COVID-19 which is untrue and may cause public fear, as well as deliberate distortion of information which causes misunderstanding and hence affects peace and order, or good moral of people, are prohibited. In that case, officials will suspend or edit such piece of news. If the case leads to severe impacts, the Computer-Related Crime Act or Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation will be enforced for prosecution.”

Thailand’s Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation gives the authorities broad powers to violate human rights, including censorship of news, information, and personal correspondence. Since the law was introduced in 2005, the authorities have used it to violate basic rights and suppress fundamental freedoms with impunity.

Access to information and freedom of expression are among the integral components of the right to health, especially in the context of a global pandemic. Access to information includes the right to seek, receive, and share information, which is especially relevant in the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure that everyone is informed about the disease as well as the government’s response, Human Rights Watch said. (Source: HRW)