Thai journalists and media outlets thinking of publishing an article about Covid-19 will think twice because any information about the virus that the government deems to be “false or capable of causing fear in the public” is now punishable by up to five years in prison.
This measure, which included no definition of “false” information, was part of a decree imposing a state of emergency on 26 March. It also allows the government to order online media outlets to “correct” any offending information and, if they fail to comply, to prosecute them under the Computer Crimes Act, whose severity RSF has condemned in the past.
“The deliberate distortion of information causing misunderstanding or affecting peace, order or public decency,” is also penalized by the decree.
“This very vaguely worded decree turns Gen. Prayut’s government into a ‘Ministry of Truth’ able to dictate to journalists what is and is not true,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The Thai authorities are clearly using the coronavirus crisis to censor or restrict the media’s work. This is all the more unacceptable because what journalists do is absolutely crucial during an emergency such as this and they should therefore be able to work without fearing reprisals.”
On 23 March, three days before the decree, the authorities arrested Danai Ussama, a Thai citizen, because, shortly after his return to Thailand from Spain he reported on Facebook that no one on his flight was screened for Covid-19 on landing at Phuket airport. After being charged with “putting into a computer system false data in a manner likely to cause panic in the public,” he was released the next day. He is due to appear in court on 12 May.
Thailand is ranked 136th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.