The Thai government’s renewed efforts to counter fake news related to the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled speculation that it is seeking to further limit the freedom of expression and media freedom in the kingdom.
As Thailand fights the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it is also fighting on a related front: what it terms a proliferation of fake news that is causing confusion among the public. The latter is seen as another covert attempt to limit the freedom of expression and media freedom in the kingdom. Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan ordered the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society and related agencies, including the Anti-Fake News Centre, the Ministry of Justice, and the Royal Thai police to take legal action. The Thai government claims that the proliferation of fake news and misinformation has caused mass confusion among the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha also instructed the Council of State to study the laws and regulations of foreign countries to help Thailand contain the spread of fake news. Afterwards, the Council’s findings will be presented to the Cabinet for action.
Directives from the current Thai regime are never quite what they seem and often have ulterior motives. For example, early Covid-19 restrictions were roundly criticised as a disguise to keep pro-reform protesters off the streets. Thailand’s Emergency Decree on the virus, issued in March of 2020 and subsequently extended several times, also enabled the government to shut down Voice TV and target The Reporters, Prachatai, and The Standard. Some of these outlets were not only critical of the government but had previous ties to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Part of the concern among Thai news organisations come directly from Prayut’s reference to India’s Intermediary Guidelines, which bring almost all content online under government regulation…
The duplicitous nature of the regime’s activities only fuels speculation that the renewed war on fake news is another hidden attempt to further limit freedom of expression and media freedom in Thailand. One major clue comes from Prayut himself. After an 8 June Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister cited recent legislation from India, which put heavy regulation on social media, including blogs and online news portals. New rules give Indian authorities to erase content from social media platforms that are deemed against the law and the ability to identify those who posted the ‘mischievous information’. Thailand has, however, had mixed results in targeting social media providers and end-users. It has attempted to prosecute social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google over their failure to remove ‘illegal posts’. The Digital Economy and Society Ministry is able to threaten users with violations of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act and more, particularly after regulations that require cafes and bars to keep user browser data for up to 90 days.
Under the cover of combatting fake news, Thai politicians have levelled charges at media organisations. After a January story in the Thai Enquirer revealed that India had offered to sell Thailand more than 2 million doses of its AstraZeneca-licensed vaccine, Narumon Pinyosinwat, a Phalang Pracharat politician and Deputy Minister of Labor, said the news organisation was a purveyor of ‘fake news’ during a session of Parliament. News portals like the Thai Enquirer often come into the crosshairs of government-aligned politicians for their coverage of political protests and government activities and for their scathing editorials. The government has warned of additional legislative action that could effectively make it difficult for outlets like the Thai Enquirer to operate.
Part of the concern among Thai news organisations come directly from Prayut’s reference to India’s Intermediary Guidelines, which bring almost all content online under government regulation, including the unprecedented power of the Narendra Modi government to remove content it deems objectionable — power that reaches deep into the individual right to privacy on social media and encrypted applications such as WhatsApp. The issue in India, as well as it should be in Thailand, is that the notion of preventing malicious content or fake news under the banner of national security or public safety also places significant pressure on free speech and expression. Further, service providers are now being pressured to take down content that is critical of Prime Minister Modi’s government, particularly its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. As Thailand’s military-backed government struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Modi’s approach to online content could bolster tactics of intimidation, such as suing for defamation.
Ultimately, Thailand, like India, aims to regulate content online in the same draconian fashion as traditional media, with a sensitivity to a unique Thai sense of morality, a royalist social order, and the protection of national security. When the Anti-Fake News Centre was established in 2019, there were warnings from rights groups about it turning into a tool of government censorship and propaganda. The Thai government’s attempts to produce additional legislation aimed at countering fake news not only accomplishes that but ostensibly could make it the final arbiter of what is truth and what is not.
Looking to ASEAN member states for legal advice on combating fake news would only foreshadow more ominous events. Cambodia has used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to carry out arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters. The Hun Sen government has arrested dozens of people linked to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) on charges of spreading fake news, all under a state of emergency law that gives the government license to curb freedom of expression and assembly. Last year, Vietnam used a decree to impose heavy fines on people using social media to share what the government deemed untruthful, including sharing publications that are banned in the country.
While Covid-19-related fake news remains a problem for Thailand, potential solutions should not come in the form of punitive measures that further curtail freedom of expression or be used as tools to target regime critics. Fake news can only be countered with widely disseminated factual information in partnership with the media. The government could also consider working with and training younger Thai journalists to spot misinformation and the need to produce credible and factual media content, particularly as It pertains to Covid19. These options would arguably generate more mileage. In the end, resorting to draconian measures only fuels secrecy and distrust among the Thai public.
Mark S. Cogan is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University based in Osaka, Japan.