Thailand outlaws reports that cause ‘fear’ as Covid-19 cases surge

Critics say move a blunt tool for criminalising debate of government handling of pandemic

A woman clings a fence for support in crowds waiting to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in Bangkok. Photograph:   Narong Sangnak

A woman clings a fence for support in crowds waiting to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in Bangkok. Photograph: Narong Sangnak

 

Thailand will allow officials to block online reports that cause “fear”, even if they are true, in a move critics have lambasted as an effort to shut down debate of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure announced late on Thursday will penalise anyone who causes “misunderstandings” or jeopardises national security during the country’s state of emergency, which has been in effect since March 2020.

The provision gives authorities the power to find where online content originated from and block it or hand over information to police for prosecution. Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government was able to pass the new rule without parliamentary approval under the emergency powers.

But critics of the new measure described it as a blunt tool for criminalising online debate about the government’s management of the pandemic.

“We need people to be ringing alarm bells when they see a problem or a lack of performance by the government,” said Matthew Bugher, head of the Asia programme for Article 19, a watchdog group focused on freedom of expression. “This law will undermine the type of dialogue that ensures accountability.”

Thailand’s 2005 emergency law carries a two-year prison sentence and its “computer crimes” act, a catch-all provision that it has used to prosecute critics for online comments, provides for imprisonment of up to five years.

Record wave

Thailand is struggling with a record wave of new cases after containing Covid-19 infections in 2020, laying bare delays in its rollout of vaccines. New confirmed cases surpassed 17,000 on Friday for a second consecutive day running and authorities reported 117 deaths. About half of Thailand’s more than 500,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of July.

Thai news websites and social media users have shared pictures in recent days of shrouded corpses on Bangkok streets of people who died while awaiting medical care. Intensive care units at many hospitals are operating at near full capacity and officials this week were rushing to set up a field hospital at the city’s Don Mueang airport.

As the Covid situation has worsened, police have charged several celebrities for online remarks criticising the government’s handling of the pandemic, including its vaccine policy. Police have also warned people they could face criminal charges for using phrases such as “murderous government” or for accusing it of doing too little on vaccines.

Cod Satrusayang, editor-in-chief of the Thai Enquirer, an online publication, described the new measure as “Orwellian” on Friday and said it would “continue to hold power to account”.

“This is the way a dictator would respond to a credibility crisis,” said Sunai Phasuk, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “Instead of addressing challenges and bringing about efficient solutions, Prayuth chose to issue a gagging order that essentially banned anyone from talking about bad news.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021