Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, which criminalises defamation, insults, and threats to members of the monarchy, is fundamentally incompatible with the right to freedom of expression, said ARTICLE 19 in a briefing published on 4 March.
The Thai government should immediately end all criminal proceedings under Section 112 and repeal the provision in its entirety.
“Thai protesters deserve to have their demands heard, even if they concern the most powerful individuals and institutions in the country,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, ARTICLE 19’s Senior Director of Programmes. “No public official should be beyond criticism. It is especially important that people can speak freely about monarchs and other unelected officials, who cannot be held accountable at the ballot box.”
The briefing, “Breaking the Silence: Thailand’s renewed use of lèse-majesté charges”, examines the history and recent use of Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code. It analyses the provision against international standards relating to freedom of expression and concludes by providing recommendations to the Thai government.
Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code is one of the strictest lèse-majesté provisions in the world. It states, ‘Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years’.
In 2020, youth-led, pro-democracy protests swept across Thailand, with protesters calling for a new government, a new constitution, and the end to the harassment of activists and government critics. As the movement gained momentum, protesters began to openly question the monarchy, a development without precedent in modern Thai history. Activists called for curbs on the power of the monarchy, Thai social media users posted about the long periods of time the king spends outside the country, and protesters donned costumes poking fun at the king’s fashion choices.
Authorities at first tried to stymie the protest movement and suppress discussion of the monarchy by applying other laws and using force to disperse protesters. However, as these efforts failed, the government resorted to renewed application of Section 112. In November 2020, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha announced that the government would consider bringing lèse-majesté charges against protesters, ending a two-year de facto moratorium on the use of Section 112.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, Thai police have opened investigations into at least 59 individuals under Section 112 since 24 November. Most are prominent activists associated with the protest movement. Several face investigations in multiple cases and could spend decades behind bars if prosecuted and convicted.
An ARTICLE 19 consultant, Pimsiri Petchnamrob, is the subject of an ongoing lèse-majesté investigation relating to her participation in a peaceful protest. A summons issued by the police indicates that her investigation stems from her citation of a UN expert during a speech at a peaceful protest. In the speech, she quoted a statement by former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye that Section 112 is incompatible with international human rights law.
In January, courts convicted two individuals on lèse-majesté charges in relation to alleged insults to the monarchy made years earlier. In one case, a Bangkok court sentenced a civil servant to 43 years’ imprisonment under Section 112 for reposting videos on Facebook and YouTube.
Most of the lèse-majesté cases initiated since November 2020 are in the investigation stage and the accused remain at liberty. However, on 8 February, the Attorney General formally charged four prominent activists under both Section 112 and Section 116, which punishes the crime of sedition. The Bangkok Criminal Court denied their request for bail, and they now await trial behind bars. The Attorney General’s office is expected to decide whether to formally charge at least 16 more activists with violations of Section 112 later this month.
Section 112 does not comply with the Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression. While the right to freedom of expression can be limited to protect the reputation of others, criminal penalties are never a proportionate penalty for reputational damage. Moreover, laws offering special protection to heads of state and high-ranking public officials invert the fundamental democratic principle that the government is subject to public scrutiny. Human rights experts and bodies have repeatedly warned against lèse-majesté laws and called on Thailand to repeal Section 112.
“Section 112 is archaic. It is a threat to democracy and human rights and should be excised from Thailand’s legal code,” said Diaz-Jogeix. “You cannot change people’s minds by silencing them. Thai law should be the guarantor of freedom of expression, not its enemy.”