Thai authorities are using the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to launch a systematic campaign to crush dissent by prosecuting social-media users who criticise the government or the monarchy, Amnesty International claimed in a report published on Thursday, April 23.
The report titled ‘They are always watching’, the global human rights watchdog said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s administration has increased the use of “vague or overly broad laws” to criminally charge dozens of peaceful critics since being elected last year.
“Through harassment and prosecution of its online detractors, Thailand’s government has created a climate of fear designed to silence those with dissenting views,” said Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Research, Advocacy and Policy.
Amnesty International interviewed human rights defenders, activists, politicians, lawyers and academics for the report, which describes how the Thai government is criminalizing the right to freedom of expression in order to silence views perceived to be critical of the authorities.
Many of those targeted for their online posts are currently awaiting trial and could face up to five years in prison and heavy fines.
Restrictions have increased amid the COVID-19 outbreak, with General Prayut last month declaring a state of emergency that further stifles freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The report concluded that officials abused the coronavirus pandemic to “ramp up” targeting of ‘fake news.’
Prayut’s administration launched a number of Anti-Fake News Centers in November last year to monitor online content that supposedly misleads citizens. However, the centers remain entirely state-run and they are yet to employ independent third parties to fact check online content stamped as ‘fake news.’
According to Amnesty’s report, authorities have used existing laws to censor “false” communications related to the handling of the coronavirus outbreak and to “crack down on critical voices.”
Social media users told Amnesty International they had been harassed and intimidated when their posts critical of authorities went viral.
On November 01, 2019, one activist was arrested and interrogated by 10 police officers as punishment for her Twitter posts concerning the government and the monarchy, one of which got 60,000 retweets. Before deleting her account, the student tweeted: “I want to warn everyone to think before you tweet and retweet. They are people who are always watching.”
She was forced to sign a document saying she would be prosecuted if she posted similar content in the future.
“These systematic attacks on human rights defenders, activists, journalists and opposition politicians make a mockery of Thailand’s attempts to portray itself as a country respecting human rights and the rule of law,” said Clare Algar.
“The Thai authorities must end the use of criminal laws against people who peacefully criticize them, and prevent further restrictions on the right to freedom of expression under the guise of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Algar continued.
“All those arrested solely for speaking their mind must be immediately and unconditionally released and all charges against them dropped. Until this happens, the international community should make it clear to Thai authorities that such flagrant human rights violations will not be tolerated.” (Source: Amnesty Intl.)