BANGKOK — An admin who ran a Facebook page educating Thais on different types of craft beer said he was surprised health officials demanded a fine of 50,000 baht for “advertising” alcohol on social media. Officials told him they received a tip-off from someone.
Artid, the admin of “Daeg Beer Hai Plea Kaem,” said he was never paid for the beer reviews he wrote, but investigators insisted on sending him to court for breaching a notorious law that criminalizes any gesture that “advertises” alcohol or “induces” others to drink, including photos of booze on social media.
He is one of the bloggers and Facebook users caught in a recent trend of snitches reporting photos of alcohol to the authorities in exchange with a reward money of 7,500 baht.
“This law is incentivizing people to snitch and turn others in. If I spent all my days screenshotting and snitching I would be rich too,” the admin said. “My friend was also fined because one of their Facebook friends snitched to the Ministry. We can’t even trust people in our friends’ lists.”
The law banning photos and public displays of booze has been in effect since 2008, but alcohol enthusiasts said it is being used without restraint during the coronavirus pandemic to extort fines from regular citizens who discussed alcohol on social media while bars and pubs remain closed.
Under the broad wording of Article 32 of the Alcohol Beverage Control Act, any action deemed by officials as inducing others to drink is punishable by a fine of 50,000 baht. Fine goes up to 500,000 baht if the offender is a manufacturer.
Online advertising of booze products or even displays of a glass filled with alcohol is also banned under the same law.
“They thought I got money for it. So I said that if I did, I would be rich by now. So they said that I was writing words that constituted an advertisement,” Artid said. “They had a problem with me saying a beer ‘lived up to its name.’ I said, I was just using human language to describe it.”
Those who reported the offense to the authorities receive a cut of 7,500 baht, and that’s where the bounty hunting begins, according to a lecturer on food and beverage regulations.
“Only 40 percent goes into state coffers. The rest is reward money, “ Charoen Charoenchai, who teaches food science at Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, said an interview.
“Witch hunting is definitely happening. The officials will not reveal who reported on them,” he continued. “If you hate someone, you can just call the police on them and they will never know who told on them.”
Charoen, who also runs a Facebook page about alcohol laws, said a Facebook user recently posted a photo of beer that they liked on their Facebook in a private setting. One of their 1,500 Facebook friends later reported the user for the photos, and collected the 7,500 baht bounty.
It seems to be a common experience. A Facebook page called We Can Choose on Sunday posted a photo of their 50,000 baht fine receipt, which said the page was guilty of posting images of alcohol.
Officials said the law prevents stealth advertisement that targets social media users, especially young people, but critics said the latest crackdown on booze photos will hurt alcohol sellers forced to sell their products online in a time of coronavirus shutdown that shut down pubs and bars indefinitely.
The government on Wednesday said nightlife establishments will not be included in the “Phase 4” of business reopening.
Charoen said although the fine of 50,000 baht can be contested in court, very few people took the risk because of time and cost involved in legal procedures.
He recalled a story of an OTOP wine brand charged with a 500,000 baht fine but who refused to pay and took the case to court and wound up with a 50,000 baht fine instead. The person who reported the tip-off could have been rewarded 75,000 baht if the brand paid the half a million baht.
“This is over the line in violating human rights. Running a red light is 1,000 baht, weed is what, 10,000?” Charoen said, adding that he will file a complaint to the Council of State to see whether the law is unconstitutional. “The Constitution says rights can be limited if others’ healths are at stake, but this is too much and affects all peoples’ rights.”
But in spite of the risk, Artid the craft beer reviewer said he will defend his case in court in the hope that it will set a precedent for future cases. Artid said health officials contacted him in late 2019 and told him to pay the fine, which he refused.
The case is now with the Nonthaburi provincial police, who are obligated to send it to the prosecutors if they believe Artid broke the law.
The lecturer said he will file a petition to the Ombudsman Office and the Council of State to see if the alcohol law is unconstitutional.
“This law is implemented by people with zero knowledge about craft beer, and lots of prejudices. They think it’s just evil things that must be erased,” he said. “My page is never even about asking people to drink. It’s a serious, even academic, page analyzing craft beers.”