Rights Groups Worried for Press Freedom Under Emergency Law

File photo of a news conference by government officials.

BANGKOK — Media and rights watchdogs on Thursday urged the military-backed government to respect freedom of the press as it wields emergency powers to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Advocacy groups like Article 19 and Human Rights Watch said media freedom is at the risk of censorship under the emergency decree, which allows the authorities to shut down media and remove contents that “spread panic.” An official working for the government’s anti-fake news center also said they are gearing up the surveillance of social media.

“Emergency measures announced today by the Thai government threaten the right to freedom of expression and access to information,” said London-based Article 19 on Wednesday.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch also expressed concerns about the repercussion of the emergency rule. Agency Asia director Brad Adams said the Thai government should stop using anti-fake news laws to prosecute people.

The organization cited the case of Facebook user Danai Ussama who was arrested with cybercrime on Monday after he returned from Spain and wrote that there was no coronavirus screening measures at Suvarnabhumi Airport. The authorities said it was considered a false news because there were thermo-scans installed; most passengers simply didn’t see it.

“Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Adams said in the statement.

A man gets his temperature checked at a checkpoint in Bangkok on March 26, 2020.

An official at Anti-Fake News Center, which operates under the Ministry of Digital Economy, said his agency will enlist more staff to monitor the social media and news, now that the emergency decree is in effect.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said police as well as soldiers can be authorized to arrest those deemed as spreading fake news without court warrant. The official added that officers committing wrongful arrests cannot be held accountable when operating under the emergency decree.

News coverage that contains false information, causes panic, or affects national security will be censored, and those responsible for the contents punished, the government said in a statement after imposing the 2005 Royal Decree of Emergency Situations.

But Thai Journalists Association president Mongkol Bangprapa said he believes mainstream media will not be affected by the emergency powers and they can carry out their work as usual.

A man gets his temperature checked at a checkpoint in Bangkok on March 26, 2020.

If anything, he said in an interview, the emergency decree is putting an end to confusing and contradictory news coming out from different state agencies over the past weeks by centralizing the government’s communication channels.

“The confusions at press conferences at various agencies shouldn’t have occurred,” said Mongkol, who recently met with Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul to discuss the series of self-contradictory statements made by the government.

Mongkol said raised concerns of media freedom under the state of emergency with government officials, and they pledged not to interfere with the media while the decree is in effect.

Police spokesman Col. Kissana Phathanacharoen also said police have yet to receive any special command by the government to deal with fake news. Nevertheless, the spokesman said police are ready to act on any future orders.

“There will probably be [an order] to look into social media next,” Kissana said.