ARTICLE 19, HRW raise concern over threat to freedom of expression during state of emergency

ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have issued statements following the announcement of emergency measures by the Thai government yesterday (26 March), raising concern over how these measures may threaten freedom of expression and access to information.

The current statistics of COVID-19 cases in Thailand, as of 25 March. 

The measures include a ban on news coverage or sharing information about COVID-19 that may be false, may cause panic, or information that is “intentionally distorted to mislead the public.” Public officials may censor such information, and sharing it may be punished under the Emergency Decree or the Computer Crimes Act, which is “a repressive law in its own right,” said ARTICLE 19. The measures also ban public gatherings “or any kind of seditious act.”

“The virus’ spread in Thailand demands a forceful response, but there is no reasonable justification for the type of restrictions on speech imposed by the government today,” said Matthew Bugher, Head of Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19. “Emergency powers should be limited to those strictly necessary to ensure an effective public health response. Broad restrictions on speech are counterproductive in these circumstances. They inhibit, rather than help, efforts to stop the spread of the virus.”

ARTICLE 19 said that “protecting public health is a legitimate state interest that may justify limits on the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. However, such restrictions must meet the standards of legality, necessity and proportionality, as established by Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),” which Thailand ratified in 1996.

Article 19 of the ICCPR states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” Paragraph 3 of the Article states that the exercise of these rights “may […] be subjected to certain restrictions” but only those that are provided by law and are necessary, such as “respect of the rights or reputations of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.”

“Thailand’s use of emergency powers to impose broad restrictions on speech is a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression. The government has provided no justification indicating that these measures are necessary or proportional to the purported aim of helping to stem the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand. To the contrary, the free flow of information is essential in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the severe criminal penalties imposed by the Emergency Decree and Computer Crime Act are not justified by the circumstances,” said ARTICLE 19.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the Thai government to “immediately repeal” the emergency measures which restrict free speech, and to ensure that any new measures comply with international human rights standards. They also call for the government to be “fully transparent and accountable,” to make information about the emergency measures clear and accessible, and to “[commit] to upholding human rights in all actions and policies.”

HRW also issued a statement yesterday (25 March) calling for the Thai government to “immediately stop using ‘anti-fake news’ laws to prosecute people critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 

“Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech.”

HRW previously expressed concerns about the threats to free speech during the COVID-19 pandemic in Thailand in the report “Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Response,” as whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists face “retaliatory lawsuits” and intimidation from the authorities for criticising the government’s response to the outbreak and reporting alleged corruption relating to hoarding of surgical masks and medical supplies. Medical staff were also threatened with termination of employment contracts and revocation of license for speaking out about shortage of hospital supplies.  

 

On 23 March, the police also arrested Danai Usama, a 42-year-old Phuket-based artist, after he posted a message on his Facebook page that, upon his return from Barcelona, Spain, he found that there was no COVID-19 screening at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Danai was charged with violating the Computer Crimes Act for “putting into a computer system false computer data in a manner that is likely to cause panic in the public,” based on a complaint made against him by Airports of Thailand PCL.  

“While the Thai government has a responsibility to adopt measures that would protect the Thai people from the outbreak, the Emergency Decree announced is a dangerous warning to the press and social media users to self-censor criticism or face prosecution,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Prayut’s military and civilian governments have long records of repressing contrary views, arresting critics, and persecuting whistleblowers. The government has granted itself virtually unlimited powers under the guise of the COVID-19 crisis that should be immediately repealed.”

As of 25 March, Thailand has 1,045 confirmed cases of COVID-19, included 9 medical staff. 4 patients are reported to be in critical condition, while 88 have been discharged from hospital.