PEN International issued a statement on Tuesday (20 April) raising concerns about the Thai authorities' use of the royal defamation law against critics of the monarchy and call for the repeal of Section 112 and for all charges against the protesters to be immediately dropped.
The statement reads:
PEN International is deeply troubled by the Thai authorities' use of criminal defamation laws against peaceful protestors who have publicly criticised Thailand’s system of monarchic rule. We call on the authorities to repeal the deeply problematic lèse-majesté law and to immediately drop all charges against those on trial for peacefully expressing their views.
In Thailand, insulting the monarchy is considered a criminal offence under Article 112 of the Thai criminal code and it can result in a maximum sentence of up to 15 years imprisonment per count if convicted. Commonly referred to as Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, it was last used in 2017 before mass protests swept the across the country last year.
As part of the Thai government’s efforts to suppress the ongoing protest movement, it has now charged over 80 individuals for violating the heavily criticised legislation in recent months. The rapid acceleration in the use of lèse-majesté charges against protestors has attracted the alarm of the United Nations and its independent experts, who have called for the law’s repeal.
Thailand has used its lèse-majesté law with wanton disregard to freedom of expression and it has frequently deployed it against critics of the government. Its elastic interpretation, expansive reach, and arbitrary use has enabled the state to chill speech and intimidate writers, journalists, and academics. That law is a blunt instrument that disrespects the Thai society by infantilising it. Thailand must release all those who have expressed their views peacefully and enact changes in law to prevent misuse of legal manoeuvres like SLAPP, said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
Among those charged for their peaceful participation at the protests are numerous writers, poets and other public figures, including Arnon Nampha, a poet and human rights lawyer who now has a total of 11 pending lèse-majesté charges against him in relation to his peaceful participation at demonstrations that took place throughout 2020.
Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who had been subject to PEN International appeals when detained previously, had his bail denied by authorities after he joined twenty other defendants in signing a letter rejecting legal representation to protest against the occurrence of several violations of their right to a fair trial. Another detainee, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, has continued to have his poetry published on social media while imprisoned. A leader of the protest movement, Parit began a partial hunger strike on 16 March 2021 in an effort to secure bail for all those detained on lèse-majesté charges. Parit’s health has markedly deteriorated in recent weeks, requiring the administration of an IV drip.
Another concerning development that highlights the further deterioration of the right to freedom of expression in Thailand is the malicious use of civil and criminal lawsuits by individuals close to the monarchy to silence critical expression, a tactic commonly referred to as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (or SLAPP). Despite mounting concern from the United Nations and other organisations over the practice in Thailand, SLAPPs continue to be used against those seen to criticise the monarchy.
A recent example of this is the civil defamation case brought against Thai scholar Nattapoll Chaiching for an unintended mistake in his 2009 PhD thesis. The mistake centres on a false assertion that Prince Rangsit interfered with the government while acting as regent from 1947-1951. The error was subsequently discovered in 2018 by another academic who reportedly called for Nattapoll to be punished for slighting the monarchy’s reputation. On learning of his mistake, Nattapoll requested the ability to revise his doctoral thesis to remove the false information but this was denied by the university, which then subsequently prohibited any public access to his thesis – a deeply problematic act of self-censorship for an institution that should be dedicated to the principle of academic freedom.
Subsequently, in 2020 Nattapoll released a book with the publisher Fa Diew Kan (Same Sky Books) that was built upon his thesis, albeit with the false information removed. Despite the correction, on 9 March 2021 Prince Rangsit’s granddaughter, M.R. Priyanandana Rangsit, filed a civil suit against Nattapoll, suing him for the equivalent of 1.5 million USD in damages. Both the publisher and Nattapoll’s PhD advisor have also been accused in the case.
The pernicious targeting of Nattapoll and his publisher through disproportionate legal action has been widely condemned by hundreds of scholars around the world and is viewed as part of a broader pattern of repression in the country. The resulting chilling effect threatens to discourage anyone from writing about the Thai monarchy though a critical lens, undermining the right to freedom of expression in Thailand.
PEN International urges the Thai authorities to unconditionally release peaceful protesters who were arbitrarily detained for their peaceful expression. We also call for the repeal of the lèse-majesté law and for the strengthening of anti-SLAPP protections.
UN human rights mechanisms have repeatedly clarified that criminal defamation and insult laws, including lèse-majesté laws, are incompatible with international standards on free expression. In 2017, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, called on Thailand to stop using its lèse-majesté law to stifle critical speech. He said, 'The lèse-majesté provision of the Thai Criminal Code is incompatible with international human rights law, and this is a concern that I and my predecessors have raised on numerous occasions with the authorities.' The disproportionate use of such restrictions also run into tension with Articles 9 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party.