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As COVID-19 Spikes, Thailand Goes After the Press

The pandemic has become an excuse for expanding authoritarianism.

By , a journalist in Thailand.
A protester scolds riot police in Thailand.
A protester scolds the riot police in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 18. Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

Over the last 30 days, Thailand’s COVID-19 cases have more than tripled in the wake of a disappointing vaccine rollout, accompanied by bodies in the street, a violent crackdown on protests, and chilling attacks on civil society. In response, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s military government took on the obvious culprit: the press—more specifically, “fake news.”

“Distorting information to cause a misunderstanding about the emergency situation, which may eventually affect state security,” is prohibited, the government announced in the Royal Thai Government Gazette, an official public journal, on Thursday, adding that internet service providers should immediately suspend violators’ accounts.

Under these new regulations, the Royal Thai Police and the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES) will follow up with legal consequences under the Computer Crime Act, including imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 40,000 baht ( $1,213). The vague, new decree also leaves room for prosecution of “fake news,” a term repeatedly used by authorities, even if the reporting is accurate, if the news causes public panic. As ever, the definition is almost entirely in the government’s hands.

Over the last 30 days, Thailand’s COVID-19 cases have more than tripled in the wake of a disappointing vaccine rollout, accompanied by bodies in the street, a violent crackdown on protests, and chilling attacks on civil society. In response, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s military government took on the obvious culprit: the press—more specifically, “fake news.”

“Distorting information to cause a misunderstanding about the emergency situation, which may eventually affect state security,” is prohibited, the government announced in the Royal Thai Government Gazette, an official public journal, on Thursday, adding that internet service providers should immediately suspend violators’ accounts.

Under these new regulations, the Royal Thai Police and the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES) will follow up with legal consequences under the Computer Crime Act, including imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 40,000 baht ( $1,213). The vague, new decree also leaves room for prosecution of “fake news,” a term repeatedly used by authorities, even if the reporting is accurate, if the news causes public panic. As ever, the definition is almost entirely in the government’s hands.

Over the weekend, the military filed a complaint with police regarding an online rumor that the army was undertaking a coup in Bangkok, with 48 battalions to oust Prayut and replace him with the bespangled general Apirat Kongsompong. Coup rumors are more or less constant in Thailand, which has had 13 successful coups since the start of the 20th century, most recently in 2014.

These moves have brought condemnation from press organizations across the country and from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. An opinion piece ran in the Thai Enquirer from editor in chief Cod Satrusayang the day after the measures were announced, stating the organization would not change its coverage and declaring the government’s fake news crusade “Orwellian.”

Prayut’s blatant disdain for the press has long been a feature of the military government, from spraying a press pool with disinfectant sanitizer to literally putting up a cardboard cutout of himself to avoid questions.

The use of “fake news” as a weapon became official with the start of the Anti-Fake News Centre in late 2019. The MDES’s enforcement has been arbitrary, using the Computer Crime Act to target political opposition, government critics, and entertainers.

The government’s new orders are ostensibly intended to combat potentially harmful rumors about the raging COVID-19 virus, due to which the country has extended “state of emergency” powers 13 times. Thailand and much of the Greater Mekong Subregion were spared COVID-19 outbreaks throughout 2020, but in April, a new outbreak and the delta variant saw cases jump from dozens to thousands.

The overwhelming demand for vaccines in Thailand, which have been largely reliant on Sinovac and the domestically produced (and under-producing) AstraZeneca vaccine, was on display when Bangkok began offering walk-in vaccinations at a location for those over age 60 and weighing more than 220 pounds. Social media flooded with photos of crowds lining up for their jabs. The beleaguered health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said the photos were the result of “camera angles or whatever.”

Exacerbating the “fake news” issue are municipal and provincial COVID-19 rules—from the consumption of alcohol to stay-at-home orders—which are issued days or even hours before they are meant to take effect, often with cryptic or flatly contradictory directions.

It’s not just newsrooms in danger of the government’s latest opposition hunt. The recent moves were preceded by weeks of threats against influencers and celebrities—arresting at least 25 people for criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The 18-year-old rapper Danupha “Minnie” Kanateerakul, better known as Milli, was one of the first celebrities targeted, garnering a fine of 2,000 baht (or $60) for defaming the government, the latest in a long list of rappers targeted by the authorities. Similarly, anyone might be at risk from the government’s renewed crusade against its critics; even just sharing or retweeting might be considered a violation.

Beyond fake news, the Computer Crime Act, and the Anti-Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation law, the government unleashed its most fearsome weapon during protests last year: Section 112, lèse-majesté or “criticizing the monarchy.” Siam Bioscience, which has strong links to the royal family, is the main source of Thailand’s vaccine supply. Criticism of the government’s vaccine plan, even vaguely, has caused lèse-majesté charges to be filed, as was the case with former Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

July also marked the beginning of the much publicized “Phuket Sandbox” and “Samui Plus” models, opening the two tropical islands to international tourism, followed by daily worries over COVID-19’s increasing spread. Authorities have warned against “fake news” related to tourism in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand—now with severe legal consequences.

The next target for Thailand’s government is a widely criticized nongovernmental organizations law that would see the kingdom keeping tabs on all international organizations, modeled on similar moves by India and Russia. This would be a severe blow to civil society groups for the entire region.

Tyler Roney is a journalist in Thailand.

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