Government censorship order challenged by the media in court

media agencies and a civil society group filed a complaint against Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as the Prime Minister and head of the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) over the 29th order under the Emergency Decree banning distribution of information causing public fear or misinformation.

Plaintiffs enter the Civil Court on Monday morning.

On 19.30 of Monday, the Court finished the hearing and scheduled the ruling for 6 August at 13.30.

The request for an urgent hearing was filed by 12 representatives from The Reporters, Voice, The Standard, The Momentum, THE MATTER, Prachatai, DemAll, The People, way magazine, echo, PLUS SEVEN and Beer People, accompanied by lawyers from the Human Rights Lawyers Alliance.

The plaintiffs asked the court to repeal the order as the provision gives the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) the authority to order an internet service provider (ISP) to block internet access for those who are found to have distributed information that causes fear, regardless of the validity of the information, and misinformation.

Unconstitutional and unauthorised

Effective as of 30 July, the order gives the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) the authority to order an internet service provider (ISP) to find out which IP address the offensive information came from and to suspend internet services to that IP address.

Govt issues new ‘fake news’ decree

The ISP must also inform the NBTC of the IP address and other related information, and the NBTC must inform the national police headquarters in order to press charges. The NBTC may also launch legal proceedings against any ISP who does not follow its order.

Noraset Nanongtoom, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said the 29th order that gives the state the power to block internet access is unconstitutional and violates the principle of criminal law that laws must have a clear, certain and unquestioned meaning.  The order allows the interpretation that publishing even true news may be an offence.

A ban on access to the internet would also prevent people from sending and receiving information. The order would also bypass the judicial process as it empowers the NBTC to oversee the entire process, making it impossible for affected people to mount a legal challenge, which may amount to state abuse of power.

Many experts were summoned for testimony. Supinya Klangnarong, a former NBTC board member, said the NBTC has no authority to consider content published by the media and people online, thus rendering the order illegitimate.

She urged the court to give the people and media temporary protection because today the internet is a necessity for people who require information and assistance, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.  A ban on internet access will cause irreparable damage.

Wilaiwan Jongwilaikasem, a lecturer from the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, Thammasat University, testified that the government’s accusations of misinformation or so-called “fake news” were made in order to legitimize the arrest the people who express different ideas from the government’s. This will deepen the polarization of ideology within society and worsen the risk of people being infected because of the lack of access to a variety of sources of information.

She said the 29th order that focused on public distribution of information will hinder the presentation of facts, making people afraid to communicate and resulting in ineffective disease control.

Wilaiwan said that fake news is meant to damage society. The state should instead educate its people in media literacy and how to debunk fake news.

Atthaphong Limsupanark, the founder of a software company, stated that the IP address given to users changes over time unless the user pays to keep it fixed, which most people do not. If users use the internet while travelling, their IP address will change as they connect to the internet from different nodes. Cutting access to the internet by IP address would affect other users who use a similar address.

Also, preventing internet access does not delete the published information. Therefore, the 29th order is written without technical computer knowledge.

Concern over news reporting

Thapanee Eadsrichai, a veteran journalist and founder of the online media The Reporters expressed her disagreement with the order, saying that it violates human rights and human dignity.

During the hearing, she testified that limiting internet access is a severe violation of rights and liberties, blocking people from immediate communication channels. The unmonitored authorization of internet blocking would harm the public and cause people to file more complaints to the courts. The government would also be able to use this provision to harass the media and dissuade people from distributing information.

Thapanee gave the court the example of a case where a person who died from Covid-19 was left to rot in their home and another case where people died as they could not access immediate treatment. The cases were tragic and terrifying, but news reports are essential in order to save others in society who are in need of help.

Tanakorn Wongpanya, Acting News Chief of The Standard, testified that the reporting of facts of the Covid-19 pandemic could be interpreted under this order as causing fear among the population, which may lead to the people receiving unbalanced information. The government may also use this provision to hide the negative effects.

He added that freedom of expression or communication should only be restricted with respect to content that is illegal on a case-by-case basis. The state has no authority to limit whole platforms that allow people to express themselves and communicate.

Source: 
prachatai.com/journal/2021/08/94267

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