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Thailand bans sharing of news that ‘causes public fear’ amid pandemic criticism

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA</span>
Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA

The Thai government has outlawed sharing news that “causes public fear”, even if such reports are true, as officials face mounting criticism over their handling of the pandemic.

On Thursday, the government tightened an emergency decree imposed more than a year ago that initially targeted false news. The latest constrictions forbid people from distributing “information causing public fear”, or from sharing “distorted information causing misunderstanding which affects national stability”.

The measures have been widely condemned by media groups and rights experts as an attempt to shut down negative news reports and silence debate. Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, described it as a “serious blow” to press freedom in the country.

“I think the government realises it is now facing a credibility crisis because of this disastrous response to the Covid situation, but instead of trying to find better solutions, more efficient solutions, it chooses to gag anyone from speaking about its failures,” said Sunai. “This provision doesn’t care about accuracy or whether it is true or false.”

Under the regulations, if false content is spread online, the country’s broadcasting regulator will contact internet service providers to identify the individual’s ISP address and block their internet access.

Internet providers who fail to comply will be deemed to have breached the requirements of their operating licences, and action will be taken against them.

Sunai said he feared the measures wold be used against online reporters and critics who use social media to share political news and commentaries that do not flatter the government.

The measures come as Thailand struggles to contain a worsening Covid outbreak that has overwhelmed hospitals and caused economic misery.

The government has faced particular criticism over its delayed vaccination campaign: roughly 5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Online, images have circulated of people dying on the street, fuelling public anger towards the government.

Thailand coronavirus cases

Officials have warned the public over publishing such images, and cracked down on celebrities who criticised their response.

Tipanan Sirichana, of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, said on Thursday that members of the public who violated the emergency decree or the Computer Crimes Act while commenting on the Covid situation could face fines or imprisonment. People should check the source of social media images before sharing them, she said, adding “you may become involved with the distribution of distorted information which creates chaos and discourages people who are working”.

Deputy police spokesman Pol Col Kissana Phathanacharoen said that while “quite a few” images shared online had shown Covid victims who have died on the streets, there were also “many [instances of] distorted information out there”. One image circulated online was of a drunk person, he said.

“Authorities have been working around the clock with the ministry of digital economy and society to crack down on those who have malicious intent,” he added.

He said the emergency measure would not be used to target truthful reporting. “If you share real information, but that information causes chaos to society, that’s absolutely fine,” Kissana said.

Over recent weeks, officials have targeted online influencers and celebrities who have criticised their handling of the country’s worsening outbreak. The teenage rapper Danupa Khanatheerakul, known as Milli, paid 2,000 baht after she was accused of defaming the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, when criticising the government response. Yutthalert Sippaphak, a prominent film director, is also reportedly facing a complaint, while Miss Grand Thailand 2020, Patcharporn Chantharapradit, said she had received a police summons.

On Friday, 17,345 cases of Covid-19 were reported, with 117 deaths. The country’s total fatalities have risen to 4,679, up from fewer than 100 deaths just four months ago. The latest wave has been driven by the more infectious Delta variant, and exacerbated by the delayed vaccination programme.

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