Article 19, the international human rights organization on freedom of expression, has recently published a statement calling for the reversal of Thailand’s latest lèse majesté conviction, 61-year-old grandfather Amphon, or the “Ah Kong” case. Amphon was sentenced 20 years for allegedly sending four vulgar SMS to the personal secretary of Abhisit Vejjajiva, then Prime Minister. The four SMS contained content violating Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, which states “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years."
The harshness of the punishment and the vagueness of the evidence used against the defendant have prompted reactions of concern from many international organizations such as the EU Delegation to Thailand, the Asian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Article 19 and Amnesty International.
Article 19 however, is the only organization calling for a reversal of Amphon’s conviction. Prachatai interviewed the London-based organization regarding the reasons and motivations behind the demand.
1. The Article 19 statement demands the reversal of Amphon's conviction. Why did you demand that? And do you think it's possible for the Thai authorities to do that, since a verdict usually cannot be easily reversed.
First and foremost, we believe that Amphon’s conviction must be quashed upon appeal because it violates international law which protects the rights of all persons to hold opinions and to express those opinions, except in the most limited circumstances. The lèse majesté law illegitimately restricts freedom of expression as protected by international law, and it is being used as a political tool by those in power to silence their critics, a problem recognised even by the Thai Government just last month.
The Thai Government has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which obliges it to respect basic human rights including freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial. Any violations of those rights are illegal and any convictions made in violation are per se illegal and must be voided.
2. Can you tell us why Amphon deserves to be released?
Amphon deserves to be released because, from an international human rights perspective, he was exercising his legal right to free expression. He has the right to express his opinions, be it via text or any other medium, and should not be punished for exercising such a fundamental right.
Furthermore Amphon’s conviction is tenuous since - as the judge admitted - there was no proven evidence to directly link him to the messages in the first place. The Thai authorities have the capability and obligation under the Thai Constitution to reverse this decision as a violation of his right to a fair trial, particularly given the lack of proof. They cannot simply claim that there is nothing they can do when innocent people are imprisoned by their officials for no reason.
ARTICLE 19 is alarmed at the lack of reliable or compelling legal evidence in this conviction. Although the judge conceded that the technical evaluation of evidence could not conclusively incriminate Amphon, the court proceeded to find him guilty. It is inconceivable how that can happen in a state that is based on rule of law.
3. Recently our ICT Minister said in public that a person who clicks 'like' in Facebook posts with lèse majesté content can be charged with lèse majesté, since it would be considered as reproducing illegal contents. What are your thoughts on that?
Showing support for a comment by clicking ‘like’ on Facebook is not a reproduction of the statement. It shows the expression of a person’s opinion, which is protected under international law without limits. This statement shows that the CCA is so excessively vague that it allows the government to expand it to include basic social media interactions.
ARTICLE 19 continues to call for the Thai Government to take immediate and concrete action to reform the CCA in accordance with the Thai Constitution and international law. The provisions in the CCA are too vague and overly broad and allow for subjective interpretation by state officials, as demonstrated time and time again. The application of the CCA should be limited to crimes that affect systems or networks including illegal access to computer systems or using computer systems to create harm to the computer network such as releasing viruses or denial of service attacks, and to preventing fraud. Sections 14 through 16 of the CCA criminalising the publication of information on public computers should be revoked.
4. Why do you call for the repeal of article 112? Some argue that such a law is needed to protect the monarchy. How would you suggest the law be used in a way that is in line with international human rights standards?
The lèse majesté law must ultimately be repealed because its very existence is a threat to freedom of expression and basic human rights. International law dictates that laws that are intended to protect an individual’s reputation should not be preferential, nor should they provide for heavier penalties on the basis of the identity of the individual who may have been impugned. By providing special protection for royalty, and in practice, individuals in power, the lèse majesté law is in breach of international guarantees of freedom of expression, which require public figures to tolerate more, rather than less, criticism and prohibit the use of laws to prevent criticism of public bodies and officials.
5. Also last week one of the opposition leaders called for the government to block YouTube and Facebook nationwide in order to get rid of lèse majesté content. In your view, how will that affect freedom of expression in the country?
The censorship of the internet and other communications networks in Thailand is of major concern. The government should cease all forms of censorship, especially through the use of the lèse majesté law.
The overly broad blocking of websites in Thailand is endemic. Websites are regularly being blocked without any court authority, based on subjective, unchallenged decisions by officials acting in secret. Millions of pages are blocked for no reason at all.