Editorial: New Laws Darken Future of Free Speech in Thailand

Junta chairman, Prime Minister, and former Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha presiding over the 105th anniversary of the 1st Region Army in Bangkok on 13 Jan 2015.

The future of freedom of expression in Thailand is bleak.

While several existing laws already grant Thai authorities sweeping power to prosecute dissident thinkers, the junta's interim government is considering two more pieces of legislation that will vastly strengthen the state's censorship capabilities.

The first piece comes in the form of a constitutional clause that places broad restrictions on freedom of expression.

According to the so-called “hate speech” clause, the state will be authorized to curb free speech in order to:

"maintain the stability of the state; to protect the rights, liberty, dignity, reputation, private information, rights in family, or individual privacy; to maintain peace and order or the good morality of the people; to prevent or cease mental or health degradation of the people; to prevent any hatred between the people in the nation or religions; or to prevent any act of violence against one another."

The term "stability of the state" should raise a red flag. Under the notorious Computer Crimes Act, which outlaws disseminating any information through a computer system that may damage national security, the very same phrase is frequently used to silence critics of the state. For example, two journalists in Phuket are currently facing jail terms for allegedly violating the Computer Crimes Act by publishing an excerpt of a Reuters article that accused some members of the Thai Navy of profiting from human trafficking. 

Authorities have regularly capitalized on the conveniently broad language of the Computer Crimes Act, which was passed by the last post-coup government in 2007, to prosecute political enemies. There is no reason to think that the lengthy and yet vague definition of what constitutes unlawful speech in this new constitutional clause won’t be wielded in the same way. 

In a second worrisome development, the Cabinet has already given the green light to a bill that would empower authorities to access any form of private communication in the name of "safeguarding national cyber security," without securing a court warrant. 

According to Section 35 of the draft of the Cyber Security Act, officials will be authorized to "access any channel of information and communication, including mails, telegrams, telephones, fax, computer, or any other type of electronic and telecommunication equipment" deemed necessary to protect the state.

As stands now, the bill does not require officials to seek court warrants to access private information, or outline any other checks on these far-reaching powers. Section 35 also grants authorities the power to "request" any state or private agency "to act for the benefit of the [officials'] performance of duty."

In Thailand, where insulting the Thai Royal Family is illegal and considered a threat to national security, there is little doubt this law will be used to identify and prosecute perceived critics of the monarchy. 

In recent years, the rise of Internet availability and social media has opened up new spaces for discussion of taboo topics in Thailand. The Cyber Security Act will surely spell the end of this safe haven for honest discussion.

With laws like the Computer Crimes Act and lese majeste, Thailand is already far from cultivating a society that values freedom of expression. These two pieces of legislation will only steer the country further from that path.