Fighting for Free Expression in Thailand
Isabelle Oldfield, Spring 2015 Intern
May 18, 2015
Almost a year ago, military leaders in Thailand seized power in a coup d’état, declaring martial law and detaining senior members of the government and opposition party. The military’s governing body – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – suspended the country’s 2007 constitution, forcibly dispersed protests, and imposed severe restrictions on freedoms of speech, association, and the press. Since the coup, political protests have been banned, and hundreds have been arrested for protesting the junta. Under mounting pressure from human rights groups, foreign governments, and international bodies, Thai authorities lifted martial law on April 1, 2015; however, Article 44 of the Interim Constitution has left sweeping powers in the hands of the junta.
Among the many consequences of the coup has been a growing crackdown on dissent. Even before the coup, civil society had been facing increasing restrictions by the Thai government, including censorship, surveillance, and attacks on their digital rights and internet freedoms. In early 2014, for example, Thai authorities monitored and aggressively blocked websites for allegedly insulting the monarchy. These practices have only escalated under the NCPO: between the coup and December 2014 alone, hundreds of websites were reportedly blocked.
Facilitating this crackdown are Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws, which were established to protect members of Thailand’s royal family from insults or threats; those charged under the law can be punished with up to fifteen years in prison. The government has historically used these laws to intimidate and bring trumped up charges against activists and journalists. Defendants typically spend the length of their trial in detention without bail, and journalists who report on the cases are also at risk of prosecution. Since the coup, numerous lèse-majesté cases have been brought before military courts with no right to formal appeal. In November 2014, the military courts tried their first case, sentencing an online radio host to five years in prison. This March, a man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for posting pictures to Facebook that were deemed insulting to the monarchy. His original sentence of ten years for each of his five posts was lessened to 25 years after he allegedly confessed, but it remains one of the harshest sentences imposed in a lèse-majesté case to date. Given the secrecy surrounding most lèse-majesté cases, it is unclear exactly how many more went to trial in 2014; however, it is suspected to be in the hundreds.
Frontline human rights defenders in Thailand and the greater Southeast Asia region are fighting back against this worrying trend by documenting, researching, and analyzing the charges lodged against individuals under these laws. The Fund is committed to promoting freedom of speech and increased human rights protections in Thailand. In supporting our free media grantees’ efforts, most recently, we partnered with Access and EngageMedia, among others, to sponsor RightsCon, a two-day digital rights convening in Manila. Held at the end of March, the convening brought together influential actors from across the technology and civil society sectors who facilitated workshops and spoke on issues of freedom of information and open data, as well as technology solutions for human rights challenges. Participants – including Fund grantees in Thailand – took away new skills and connections that will help them to continue their work fighting for freedom of expression and seeking justice in the digital age.