Update

Freedom of Expression in Thailand During 2016

Key Details

  • Themes
    National Security, Defamation / Reputation

It is more than two years since the military seized control in Thailand and established a military junta called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to govern the nation. However, since the coup on May 22, 2014 there has been little, if any, improvement in freedom of expression rights which are being suppressed in a variety of ways by the junta. Human rights defenders and activists as well as their family members reportedly remain under threat from exercising their rights and by the end of December 2016 around 1000 people had been summoned, charged or arrested and 300 had been tried by military courts.[1]

Last year also marked the validation of the NCPO’s power via a constitutional referendum in which 61% voted in favor of a draft constitution endorsing the junta’s control and ensuring that it didn’t have to take responsibility for any past abuses of power[2]. The referendum result was perhaps unsurprising since the NCPO had taken various steps to limit campaigning against the draft constitution. One such step was the passing of a Referendum Act, Article 61 of which prohibited the spread of “false”, “rude”, “inciting”, “intimidating” messages about the referendum and the constitution. Despite much criticism that the Article violated freedom of expression, the Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Act in a ruling June 29. Subsequently, thirteen students and activists were arrested for distributing “Vote No” leaflets including some from the New Democracy Movement (NDM), a Bangkok-based anti-junta student group that had long campaigned against the NCPO[3]. Meanwhile, critics of the referendum process suggested that channels and programs that opposed the draft constitution hadn’t been given equal air-time.

There is also evidence that politically-motivated charges were brought against many human rights defenders throughout 2016. Among these is a case involving Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khonkachonkiet, and Anchana Heemmina who were charged in June with defamation and violations of Computer Crime Act for compiling a report on torture by military officers in the south of the country[4]. Another notable case is that of prominent human rights lawyer, Sirikarn Charoensiri, who refused to let military officers raid her car because they did not have a warrant[5]. Sirikarn Charoensiri was one of the legal representatives acting for the students arrested for distributing “Vote No” leaflets and it was reported that some of their belongings were found in her car. Charges filed against Sirikarn Charoensiri included allegations that she failed to obey official orders and committed offences under Article 116 of the Criminal Code[6].

Lèse-majesté[7] (known as Article 112) remained a serious threat to freedom of expression throughout 2016 and is unlikely to lose its force as the junta wants to ensure a smooth transition for the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn following the death of King Bhumibol on October 13, 2016. For example, legal proceedings in lèse-majesté cases are typically held behind closed doors and suspects are usually refused bail. Many of the cases are politically-motivated such as those of Patnaree Chankij and Jatupat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa. Patnaree Chankij was charged with lèse-majesté in August after writing the word ‘ja’ (“yes” in English) in response to a private message critical of the royal family[8]. It is well-known that Patnaree is the mother of the anti-junta activist, Sirawith ‘New’ Serithiwat, who regularly campaigned against the NCPO. Jatupat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa was charged under Article 112 after it was alleged that he had been sharing and quoting a BBC Thai article about the biography of King Rama X on his social media[9]. The junta even proposed a plan for the extradition of so-called “lèse-majesté fugitives” from other countries, many of whom were accused of being members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or “red shirts”, a political group that supports the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Another sign of suppression is the NCPO’s legislative program. In December it adopted a revised cybersecurity Act which has raised many privacy concerns. The new Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA) restricts free speech and enforces surveillance and censorship. The Act was passed by 168 members of the NCPO-appointed National Legislative Assembly with only five abstentions and despite a petition against the new law which had been signed by more than 360,000 people[10]. The NCPO has also proposed a media-regulation bill that would restrict press freedom and is strongly opposed by national and international media agencies[11]. Both Acts are seen as part of a political agenda being used to restrict any lèse-majesté content on the Internet and in the media.

Globally-recognized rankings confirm Thailand’s human rights record: Freedom House has rated Thailand as ‘Not Free’ for three consecutive years since the end of 2014 and Reporters without Borders ranks Thailand 136th of 180 countries in terms of press freedom in its 2016 report. Thailand became a member of the United Nations in December 1946 and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in October 29, 1996 effective from January 29, 1997. However, the continuing suppression of human rights does not seem to reflect adherence to the principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR. On the contrary, the passage of several restrictive laws and regulations are eroding freedom of expression in the country and people face daily threats from officials for exercising their rights. It is difficult to see when, or even if, the “peace” element of the “National Council for Peace and Order” will become a reality.

 

[1] Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw)

[2] Head, J. (2016). BBC, Thai Referendum: Why Thais backed a military-backed constitution. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37013950
[3] The Guardian,. (2016). Thailand jails activists for campaigning to reject constitution in referendum.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/25/thailand-jails-activists-for-campaigning-to-reject-constitution-in-referendum

[4] Rojanaphruk, P. Khaosod English, (2016). Human rights activists refuse to hand over names of alleged torture victims. http://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2016/06/15/human-rights-activists-provide-names-alleged-torture-victims-un/

[5] Rojanaphruk, P. Khaosod English (2016) Lawyer’s rights tested under junta’s might. http://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2016/03/13/1457856155/

[6] Whoever makes an appearance to the public by words, writing or any other means which is not an act within the purpose of the Constitution or for expressing an honest opinion or criticism in order (1) to bring about a change in the Laws of the Country or the Government by the use of force or violence; (2) to raise unrest and disaffection amongst the people in a manner likely to cause disturbance in the country; or (3) to cause the people to transgress the laws of the Country, shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding seven years.

[7] The insulting of a monarch or other ruler

[8] The Guardian,. (2016). Thai activist’s mother charged with insulting the monarchy, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/01/thai-activist-mother-patnaree-chankij-charged-with-insulting-the-monarchy

[9] BBC,. (2016). Thai activist arrested for sharing king’s profile on Facebook, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38196136

[10] Reuters,. (2016) Thailand passes amendment to cyber law despite opposition, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-cyber-idUSKBN14513I

[11]Mokkhasen, S. Khaosod English, (2017) Thailand’s media protests law to ‘license’ all journalists, http://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2017/01/27/thailands-media-protests-law-regulate-press/

Authors

Sutawan Chanprasert

Independent Human Rights Researcher

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