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Rights groups warn Thailand against using coronavirus to clamp down on free speech

Rights groups have called on Thai authorities not to use ‘anti-fake news’ laws to stifle criticism of the government’s efforts to suppress the spread of the new coronavirus. 

On March 26, an emergency decree went into affect giving the Thai government wide latitude in battling the coronavirus pandemic. 

In announcing the emergency powers, Prime Minister Prayut warned people must be careful what they post online. He said those who abuse social media would be arrested and prosecuted, the Bangkok Post reports.

During a state of emergency, the prime minister may, among other things, ban the reporting, selling, distributing, or dissemination of media whose content may frighten people or cause unrest, or that intentionally distorts news and information.

The prime minister can also ban public assembly for any reason. 

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that the Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about official response to COVID-19.

“The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech,” Adams said.

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HRW cited the March 23 arrest of Danai Ussama, who 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.”

The charge follows a complaint from Airports of Thailand PCL, the national airport operator, in relation to a March 16 facebook post in which Dani claimed he and other passengers coming from Barcelona, Spain had not been subject to new coronavirus screening at at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. 

The Airports of Thailand PCL charges his post is not factual and caused public panic.

If convicted, Dani faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 baht ($3,050).

“While the Thai government has a responsibility to adopt measures that would protect the Thai people from the outbreak, the Emergency Decree announced is a dangerous warning to the press and social media users to self-censor criticism or face prosecution,” Adams said.

“Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s military and civilian governments have long records of repressing contrary views, arresting critics, and persecuting whistleblowers,” he said.

“The government has granted itself virtually unlimited powers under the guise of the COVID-19 crisis that should be immediately repealed.” 

A woman, wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus, walks next to an information board about how to reduce the spread of the virus in Bangkok on March 27. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP)

On March 25, the London-based advocacy group Article 19 likewise warned media freedom was under threat in the country following the emergency decree.

“Emergency measures announced today by the Thai government threaten the right to freedom of expression and access to information,” said London-based Article 19 on March 25.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also raised their concerns over emergency rule, saying that the Thai govt should uphold press freedom and refrain from harassing and restricting reporters.

“Thai authorities should not use the COVID-19 emergency situation as a pretext to censor or restrict journalists or media organizations,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.

“Journalists serve a crucial role in keeping the public informed during health crises. They should be allowed to do their jobs without fear of reprisal,” he said.

Thai officials on March 27 reported 91 new cases of coronavirus infections and one death, taking the total to 1,136 and five, respectively in the country, reports Reuters.

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