Human rights group Article 19 has written to the United Nations Human Rights Council about what it describes as “declining freedom of expression” in the Kingdom of Thailand.
The UNHRC’s “periodic review” of human rights in Thailand takes place in October. In a submission for that review, the London based NGO voiced concern at what it described as “a regime of legislations to stifle political debates” by the Thai government.
It also alleged that the government has “tightened its grip on freedom of expression” in the country.
The submission calls on the UNHRC to recommend that the Thai government review and amend the country’s free speech laws and cease all forms of censorship. In particular, Article 19 says that emergency decrees should not restrict freedom of expression; that the country’s computer crimes, defamation and lèse-majesté laws should be revised or repealed; that the freedom of information law be clarified; and that restrictions should be placed on the rights of the government and military to own and control media.
Thailand’s 2007 constitution protects freedom of speech. Article 19 highlights five areas that it says violate those principles:
Use of emergency powers: In its criticism of the powers the government granted itself after declration of a state of emergency on April 7 2010, Article 19 says the decree’s provisions were “abused … to target journalists and shut down media channels”. It cites incidents where people were banned from, or arrested for, distributing political material during the red shirt protests in Bangkok. And it notes the detention without charge of various members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD).
Internet restrictions: Article 19 says the 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA) has been “used aggressively to limit online speech … lèse majesté is often used as pretence by authorities to limit public comment”. The NGO says the CCA has been used in violation of both the Thai constitution and international law, for example in permitting surveillance of users without a court order. It says the act has “vague and over-broad” provisions that allow for subjective interpretation. It says that despite the act specifying that ISPs and website hosts are only liable for problematic user content if it is published by them “affirmatively”, in practice, the law has been applied with “strict liability, in violation of international standards”. (The example of Prachatai boss Chiranuch Premchaiporn is cited.)
Defamation and lèse majesté: Article 19 notes that Thailand’s defamation laws do not follow international standards in that public bodies are permitted to initiate cases, and public figures are not required to be more tolerant of criticism than ordinary citizens. Consequently, “Powerful elites, companies and politicians frequently use both criminal and civil defamation to intimidate, bankrupt and imprison their critics”. Furthermore, there has been an increase in the use of the country’s lèse-majesté laws since 2006 – frequently, according to Article 19, “to silence oppositional voices in the name of protecting the royalty”.
Official Information Act: The purpose of Thailand’s 1997 Official Information Act (OIA) was to guarantee public access to information held by officialdom. Article 19 says however that “the legal and practical enforcement of this right remains weak” and that aspects of the law “serve to enhance the culture of secrecy that has characterised Thai bureaucracy”. Article 19 claims the OIA has not prevented state agencies from delaying the release of information without explanation; it treats the release of restricted information as a more serious offence than the failure to provide access to information that should be released; that state agencies have failed in their obligations to make information available; and that the media have shown little interest in using the law to obtain information. Finally Article 19 says that the body set up that enforces the act is part of the prime minister’s office, and therefore is insufficiently independent.
State control of the media: Although the constitution prohibits politicians from owning shares in the media, Article 19 notes that “serious problems relating to conflict of interest remain”, because the majority of terrestrial television networks and many radio networks are owned by the government or military. The National Broadcasting Commission, a regulatory body required by the 1997 constitution, has still not been set up. Furthermore across the media “journalists tend to exercise self-censorship or issues regarding the military, monarch and the judiciary. This has been widely attributed to the control of media by powerful players of the Thai political backstage”.
In 2006 the UNHRC committed to undertake a “universal periodic review” of each of its 192 member states every four years. Thailand’s review is scheduled to take place in the sessions starting October 3 2011.
The reviews are based on reports from three sources: statements by the country under review; official reports from human rights experts and groups and other UN bodies; and information submitted by “other stakeholders” such as NGOs and national human rights institutions. Article 19’s report falls under the latter category. The current president of the UNHRC is a Thai national, Sihasak Phuangketkeow.
Article 19 takes its name from Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
• Article 19’s submission is at http://www.article19.org/pdfs/submissions/thailand-upr-submission.pdf
• Article 19’s press release is at http://www.article19.org/pdfs/press/un-hrc-article-19-reports-on-declining-freedom-of-expression-in-thailand-for.pdf