Thailand: Authorities using repressive laws to intensify crackdown on online critics

The Thai authorities are prosecuting social media users who criticize the government and monarchy in a systematic campaign to crush dissent which is being exacerbated by new COVID-19 restrictions, Amnesty International said in a new briefing released today.

‘They are always watching’ shows how General Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s administration has increased the use of vague or overly broad laws to bring criminal charges against 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.

“The government’s attacks on freedom of expression online are a shameful attempt to escape scrutiny from those who dare to question them. And repression is escalating, with authorities seemingly using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to further quash criticism and unlawfully restrict human rights.”

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.

Crackdown on freedom of expression online

After half a decade of repressive military rule following the 2014 coup, many hoped last year’s elections would be a catalyst for progress on human rights. Yet one year into the premiership of General Prayut – who also fronted the previous military regime – Thailand’s elected government has ramped up its efforts to muzzle online voices.

Social media users told Amnesty International they had been harassed and intimidated when their posts critical of authorities went viral.

On 1 November 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.”

These systematic attacks on critics make a mockery of Thailand’s attempts to portray itself as a country respecting human rights
Amnesty International's Clare Algar

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.

Exploitation of the law

The government is using a series of repressive laws to crack down on critical voices.

These include the Computer Crimes Act, which was amended in 2016 to give authorities license 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’ imprisonment for acts of sedition.

In addition, Articles 326 to 333 of the Thai Criminal Code criminalize 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 could be used to ramp up targeting of ‘fake news’

As part of a concerted effort to shape debate on social media, government-run Anti-Fake News Centers were launched in November 2019 to monitor online content that supposedly misleads people. Yet the government has failed to employ credible, independent third parties to factcheck online content deemed ‘fake news’.

While allegations of “hate speech” 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 24 March 2020, General Prayut warned of prosecutions for “abuse of social media”, deepening concerns that authorities may file lawsuits against individuals for criticizing the Thai government’s response to the virus.

On 26 March, the government invoked the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation (2005). Under Article 9 of the 2005 Emergency Decree, officials are empowered to censor or edit information they deem to be false or distorted with the potential to create public fear or misunderstanding – 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 criticize them, and prevent further restrictions on the right to freedom of expression under the guise of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Clare Algar.

“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.”