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Prayuth’s media gag order casts doubt on respect for the constitution

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BANGKOK – A short-lived media gag order overturned by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has sparked skepticism among Thais about his government’s respect for the constitution.

Prayuth lifted the order on Monday, the government’s public journal, the Royal Gazette, announced on Tuesday. The withdrawal came shortly after the Bangkok Civil Court issued an injunction on August 6 to block the order, which did not come into effect until July 30.

The restriction claimed to target fake news about COVID-19, but its wording caught the attention of academics, media agencies and lawyers.

It prohibits anyone from “reporting news or disseminating information that terrifies people or intentionally distorting information in order to create a misunderstanding about the emergency situation that may harm state security, order or people’s good morals”.

The order empowered the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to induce Internet service providers to disclose the sources of such information. They had to report the IP addresses that the information came from and block those addresses from accessing the Internet. The regulator should provide the police with the IP addresses for legal action.

The ambiguous wording made it possible that passing on correct information or fair criticism of the government could lead to anger. Academics were the first to criticize the former junta leader’s order, saying that no one should be prosecuted for disclosing true information, even if it frightens them.

Skepticism grew because the order came at a time when criticism of the government was mounting for its poor handling of the COVID-19 situation. The Delta strain epidemic has resulted in an average of 20,000 confirmed cases per day over the past week. The country’s low vaccination rate – around 7% – resulted in a shortage of hospital beds. Soft business freezes and a nightly curfew to contain outbreaks in the affected provinces financially strangled the Thais.

Thais protest against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangkok on August 10. © Reuters

Some economists, scholars, and researchers have openly questioned the prime minister’s capabilities. Anti-establishment and pro-democracy protesters take to the streets every day calling for Prayuth to resign, albeit in fewer numbers than at anti-government rallies in 2020 as the pandemic situation worsens and fears Dracons of the land to be prosecuted law of lese majesty. They have faced violent raids as authorities have shown less reluctance to use rubber bullets and tear gas. Dozens of demonstrators were arrested.

The court’s injunction responded to a petition from a group of media companies. Their motion alleged that the vague wording of the order violated the criminal law principle that criminal offenses should not be too broad. Authorizing the telecommunications regulator to block certain addresses without trial is also illegal, the group said. Above all, the order violates the constitutional freedom of the press.

“In the opinion of the court, given the existence of several legal instruments, measures to illegally disseminate information and the ability of the government to educate people, develop a better understanding of the public and investigate false information, the suspension of the enforcement of such information is worthwhile Regulation does not represent an obstacle for public administration in emergency situations and in the public interest, “says the court’s opinion on the injunction.

The government can still block internet content by asking the court to determine whether the content is illegal. Operators of internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are requested to comply with official requests if the court agrees.

The media gag order was proposed by the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), chaired by the Prime Minister. The center acts as a cabinet-independent political decision-making body that only supports the centre’s proposals. Since the pandemic began, Prayuth has used the CCSA to minimize backroom negotiations within the cabinet.

The Prime Minister and the CCSA are being questioned as to whether they undermined the Constitution by adopting the regulation. “The prime minister has paid little attention to people’s rights since he came to power in 2014,” said Somchai Prechasillapakul, associate professor of law at Chiangmai University. “Prayuth could be sued for constitutional violations.”

Reporters report on a protest against the government in Bangkok in October 2020. Prayuth is now trying to put more pressure on the media. © Reuters

This is not the first time Prayuth has tried to put pressure on the media. In February 2015, as the junta leader, he said he had the power to shut down news outlets. The following month, he said he would execute reporters if they did not follow the official line.

The current constitution was ratified in 2017 on the initiative of Prayuth as the junta leader, after being passed in a national referendum in 2016. She holds Thailand a constitutional monarchy with the monarch as head of state. The constitution also resulted in the re-election of Prayuth as prime minister in the 2019 general election.

A group of opposition parties has petitioned the National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate the Prime Minister for abuse of power by approving the media gag order.

“After examining the court ruling, we found that Prayuth’s actions included wrongdoing on at least four points,” said Sutin Klungsang, chairman of the opposition group. He said he would refer the case to the Supreme Court’s Criminal Police Department for Political Holders and seek the impeachment of the Prime Minister.

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