Covid-19 a new reason to step up crackdown on online critics


In a report published on Thursday (April 23), Amnesty International claimed that the 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.  

“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 chief of global operations. “The administration’s attacks on freedom of expression online are a shameful attempt to escape scrutiny from those who dare to question them. And the crackdown is escalating, with authorities apparently using the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to further quash criticism and illegally curtail human rights. 

Amnesty International interviewed human rights defenders, activists, politicians, lawyers and academics for the report, which describes how the Thai government is criminalising the right to freedom of expression in order to silence views perceived to be critical of the authorities. 

Many of those targeted are presently awaiting trial and could face up to five years in prison and heavy fines. 

Restrictions rose amid the Covid-19 outbreak, with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declaring a state of emergency, further stifling free speech and peaceful assembly. 

Crackdown on expression on the internet 

After half a decade of military rule after the 2014 coup, many hope last year’s elections will be a catalyst for human rights progress. Yet one year into General Prayut’s second regime, the so-called elected government has redoubled its efforts to muzzle online voices. 

Social media users told Amnesty International they had been harassed while at the same time intimidated when their posts critical of authorities went viral. 

On November 1, 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,” Algar said. 

Use of the law 

The government is using a series of repressive laws to crack down on critical voices, including the Computer Crimes Act, which was amended in 2016 to give the authorities free licence to monitor and suppress online content and prosecute individuals for various broadly defined violations of the law. 

Moreover, the overly broad Article 116 of the Thai Criminal Code provides for a penalty of up to seven years’ in prison for acts deemed to be seditious.  

In addition, Articles 326 to 333 of the Thai Criminal Code criminalise defamation, in effect empowering authorities to jail people deemed to have “impaired the reputation” of public officials. 

Despite a pause in use of the lèse majesté law to prosecute perceived critics of the monarchy, the government has employed other laws for the same purpose.  

The Computer Crimes Act and Article 116 of the Criminal Code have both been used to bring criminal charges against individuals whose online posts have been deemed injurious to the monarchy and the authorities. 

Covid-19 used to up targeting of ‘fake news’ 

As part of a concerted effort to shape debate on social media, the government launched “Anti-Fake News Centres” in November last year to monitor online content that supposedly misleads people. Yet the government has failed to employ credible, independent third parties to fact-check online content deemed to be “fake news”.  

While allegations of “hate the keynote address” and false information campaigns against human-rights activists have been ignored, authorities have wasted no time using existing repressive laws in order to censor “false” communications related to Covid-19.  

On March 26, the government invoked the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation (2005), which empowers the authorities to censor or edit information they deem to be false or distorted – with a possible penalty of up to two years in jail. 

“The Thai authorities must end the use of criminal laws against people who peacefully criticise them, and prevent further restrictions on the right to freedom of expression under the guise of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Algar said. 

“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.”