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‘Fake News’ Crackdown a Last Gasp From Thailand’s Failing Gov’t Unable to Control Covid-19

Unable to stop a raging pandemic and fearful of a public uprising, ex-coup leaders look to jail those publishing even the truth

Mock body bags lay on a picture of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to depict casualties of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, during an anti-government march from Democracy Monument to Government House, in Bangkok July 18.
Mock body bags lay on a picture of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to depict casualties of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, during an anti-government march from Democracy Monument to Government House, in Bangkok July 18.

Thailand’s latest attempt to combat “fake news” by even jailing journalists for publishing the truth is the last gasp of a failing government unable to stop a raging coronavirus pandemic and fearful that a public uprising will oust for incompetent coup makers from power.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Thursday ordered responsible agencies to take action against individuals spreading “fake news” about Covid-19 that might cause public confusion.

His Facebook post came in response to social media rumors that Bangkok’s Bang Sue vaccination center would be shut down to prevent overcrowding. His health minister laughingly defended the disorganized, potential coronavirus superspreader that forms each day at the rail an illusion of “camera angles”.

The Prime Minister said each ministry must establish a task force to check and correct fake news related to their areas of responsibility. The government’s Anti-Fake News Center must check and verify the information and announce on their website, within 24 hours, that they are aware of the news or that a public inquiry has been submitted.

Prayut’s dictate was codified in the Royal Gazette and issued in compliance with Section 9 of the emergency decree.

The same day, media veterans and organizations held an online seminar to slam the government for ignoring calls to stop its plans to impose such a measure as they say it will restrict media freedom.

According to Prayut’s order, distribution of information causing public fear or distribution of distorted information causing misunderstanding and affecting national stability is prohibited. If false content is spread online, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission is required to inform internet service providers to check IP addresses and immediately suspend services.

The ISPs must report the details of their findings to the NBTC which is promptly required to lodge complaints and submit evidence to police to take legal action.

ISPs who fail to comply with the announcement will be considered to have failed to follow the requirements of their operating licenses and the NBTC will take further action against them.

“The emergency decree… has granted the prime minister broad powers… and has threatened the right to freedom of expression and access to information which is an integral component of the right to health, especially in the context of a global pandemic,” Josef Benedict, a researcher at the global civil society alliance CIVICUS Monitor said.

“Attempts by the Thai authorities to crack down on misinformation and ‘fake news’ on social media seem to be a cover for repressive actions against those who are critical online of the government’s handling of the pandemic rather than about protecting health,” Benedict added.

Human rights group Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) pointed out that the term “fake” has been dropped from the new order, meaning the distribution of any information deemed to incite fear — regardless of its veracity — could be punished with prison time or a fine.

The move has raised concerns about how the authorities will interpret and enforce the new law, which could give them free rein to crack down on opponents.

“Thai authorities must address Covid-19 through measures that are human-rights compliant, using restrictions only as long as they are proportionate, temporary and clearly limited to what is necessary to protect public health,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns.

 “People should be able to comment freely on social media about the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis without any fear of facing criminal charges,” she added.