Use of sedition law worries journalists, critics

Media professionals and human rights advocates have called on the regime to stop using the sedition law to instil an environment of fear and silence its critics.

On 3 August 2017, members of the press and human rights advocates gathered at the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) in Bangkok for a public discussion on the use of Article 116 of the Criminal Code, the sedition law.

Sunai Phasuk, advisor to Human Rights Watch, said that the sedition law was rarely enforced prior to the 2014 coup d’état. After the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) assumed power, however, the law has been regularly used against critics of the military regime.

Even people who took photos with red water dippers signed by Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister and a lawyer who went to observe a political gathering were accused of sedition, Sunai illustrated.

“The numbers have increased to about 24 cases and 66 people facing charges,” said Sunai. “Article 116 has been used as tool [to maintain] order and for political suppression.”

The HRW advisor added that the NCPO should also cancel orders which restrict the freedom of the press and the right to freedom of expression in order to facilitate an environment conducive to political transition.  

Jakkrit Permpoon, advisor to the TJA and editor of the Lanna Post, said the authorities in the past used the criminal defamation law, which could lead to one year in prison, as a tool to restrict the media. At present, however, laws with heavier penalties, such as the Computer Crime Act, which carries up a prison term of up to five years, or the sedition law, up to seven years, are also being used to instil fear.

He then talked about the veteran journalist from Khaosod English Pravit Rojanaphruk, who was recently charged with sedition, saying that he should not face sedition charges, but criminal defamation at the worst.

Seri Suwanpanon, chairman of the National Reform Committee’s subcommittee on judicial procedure, clarified that Article 116 is crucial to maintain national security and order, but it should be used in a careful manner because not every criticism is liable under the sedition law.

Wirat Kalayasiri, of the Democrat Party’s legal department, said the government does not want to mess with the media, but Article 116 is a convenient tool for dealing with biased media with distorted news.

He added that people accused of sedition have many legal channels to fight cases.  

In brief, Article 116 states that anybody who expresses opinions by any means with an intention to incite violence and unrest, to change the law or the government, or to encourage people to violate the law shall be imprisoned for up to seven years.  

According to iLaw, a human rights advocacy group, from 22 May 2014 to 27 August 2017, at least 66 people have been arrested and charged under Article 116 for various activities deemed threatening to national security. Allegations range from failing to report to the junta, mocking or criticising the regime, to merely showing symbolic support to anti-junta activists.

The number is in stark contrast with the small number of sedition cases before the coup. From 2010-22 May 2014, there were only four reported sedition cases.

The eight junta critics accused of sedition in front of the Bangkok Military Court on 23 August 2016 (file photo)