Freedom of expression is under assault in Thailand. Will the Thai people be able to overcome this oppression?
Burin Intin, a welder, became the first person under the rule of Thailand’s new king to be sent to jail (11 years and four months) for breaching the Lese-Majeste Law. He pleaded to two counts: one ‘defamatory’ comment on Facebook while the second one was based on a private message he sent to a mother of a well-known activist.
The alarming thing about Burin Intin’s conviction was that he was also charged under the repressive Computer Crimes Act (CCA) which is used to control critics of Thailand’s Junta. Intin was part of a street protest last year that was critical of the military dictatorship. In fact, Facebook is even helping in the censorship efforts to block off criticism of Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn. In the first half of last year, Facebook restricted ten pieces of content that allegedly violated the Lese-Majeste law as reported by Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.
Thailand keeps a close tab on citizens’ social media accounts
Thailand has embarked on a massive social media surveillance. This allows the government to spy on practically all information like posts, comments, tags, videos on their list of suspected dissidents of the state. In 2015, tour operator Pongsak Sriboonpeng was sentenced to 60 years (10 years for each of the six posts that he made criticising the previous monarch). His sentence was halved to 30 years as he pleaded guilty.
CCA is a tool for persecution
Section 14 of the amended CCA penalises anyone entering any data on a computer system that damages the public, creates panic, or cause harm to national, public or economic security. This ambiguity can be abused by the government to press charges to any dissident of the government or the monarch. This can lead to a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Along with Section 15 of the amended CCA which penalises the internet service provider for any assistance to a computer crime, this creates incentives for them to simply self-censor to avoid getting into trouble with the government. This establishes a new low for freedom of expression in Thailand.
According to Kingsley Abbott, Senior International Legal Adviser of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) for Southeast Asia, prosecutions under the CCA have risen sharply in the past few years. There were only 71 prosecutions in 2014, and then last year it rose sharply to 399 prosecutions.
Thailand seeks to silence journalists
The government is also keen on expanding their censorship to journalists. There is a pending bill requiring journalists to be licensed, and there would be a ‘national media profession council’ that can penalise media outlets that breach the code of conduct that the Council will create. Four of the 13 members of the committee will be government officers.
The potent combination of the Lese-Majeste Law and the CCA allows the government to silence critics and intimidate political enemies. They fear that without the Internet and social media censorship, there would be political instability. This gives the state total control over media outlets.
The current rating of Thailand under Freedom House (human rights and democracy watchdog) is “Not Free.” If the bill gets approved, the rules are likely to be extended to bloggers and citizen reporters which will lead to further deterioration of the right to freedom of expression.