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Thailand: HRW slams oppressive media laws

Thais are facing increasingly fewer freedoms of expression, according to the Human Rights Watch World Report. 2019 saw a rise in applications of SLAPP suits, defamation charges and other efforts to quash dissent.

After almost two years of court appearances, Suchanee Cloitre was convicted of criminal defamation by the Lop Buri Provincial Court, and sentenced to two years in prison over a tweet she wrote in 2017.

The defamatory word in the tweet was "slave," or slave labor, which she posted referring to a migrant worker rights case at the Thammakaset Co. chicken farm in Lop Buri province. The farm had been at the center of complaints made by Myanmar laborers who said that they were forced to work 20-hour days and were not paid their wages.

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Although Thailand's Supreme Court ruled that the company's owner, Chanchai Pheamphon, should pay the workers compensation, Chanchai still independently sued a number of journalists, workers and human rights activists, claiming defamation.

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"I was so stressed [about the case] that I almost gave birth at 36 weeks," says Suchanee, who was then a reporter for Voice TV in Thailand. Her son is now nine months old, and she is fearful about what will happen to him if her appeal is rejected.

Suchanee's experience is just one instance in an ever-tightening media sphere in Thailand, according to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2020 released this week.

The section on Thailand, titled "To Speak Out is Dangerous, the Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Thailand" cites a variety of methods used to quash freedom of expression and speech in the Southeast Asian country.

According to the report, along with implementing increasingly strict defamation laws, journalists, activists and members of the political opposition can be hit with punishments ranging from charges of illegal assembly, sedition, military detention and even enforced disappearances in the most extreme cases.

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"Even though the junta's ban on public assembly was lifted in December 2018, at least 130 pro-democracy activists in Bangkok and other provinces faced illegal assembly charges during the year 2019 under the Public Assembly Act, and in some cases sedition, for peacefully holding rallies and posting Facebook commentaries," says the report.

Even sharing so-called defamatory material with others can be grounds for similar charges. "If you're asking for the people to join your movement you might also be charged with causing unrest in the country," says Nadthasiri Bergman, the director of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Association, an organization that is working on Suchanee's case.

A ripple effect of self-censorship

"The corollary is that people are really self-censoring," says Brad Adams, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "Huge networks of people aren't attending rallies and protests, aren't posting on Facebook, aren't giving comments to journalists, and people are basically taking themselves out of the game."

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The last year has also been a particularly remarkable one for restrictions on press freedom in Thailand, with the introduction of fake news laws, combined with the use of its previously existing Computer-Related Crime Act and what Adams says is also an increase in strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPP suits. 

"The fake news law is only political content," says Adams. "It could of course be weaponized by the authorities ... They could easily start going after Facebook posts, and the fake news law has no requirement that the information is false or defamatory."

According to Nadthasiri, citizens, activists and journalists are all feeling the tightening grip on self expression.

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In February of last year, the Computer-Related Crime Act was used to charge Thanathorn Juangroonguangkit, the leader of Thailand's most high-profile opposition party, the Future Forward Party, with cybercrimes over "Facebook commentaries alleging the junta bribed opposition politicians to join Prayut's side in the general election," the report says.

That same month, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission suspended Voice TV's broadcast license for 15 days, accusing the station of "providing airtime to opposition politicians to criticize the junta."

"In Thailand freedom of expression and freedom of opinion are being strictly controlled, and that space is shrinking," says Nadthasiri.

No protection from SLAPP Suits

Part of that shrinking freedom is the outcome of Suchanee's defamation case, says Nadthasiri. "This is the harshest sentence that I've seen," she says.

"It (Suchanee's conviction) was meant to be a strong signal to all Thai media," says Adams. "She is being used."

Suchanee was convicted of defamation under a SLAPP suit, and, according to Nadthasiri, there is no effective form of protection against such suits.  "The people who get 'slapped' the most are political activists, political opponents, human rights defenders and reporters," says Nadthasiri.

Read more:The struggle continues for Thailand's opposition 

"The law the government passed to try to handle SLAPP cases is not comprehensive and it still has a lot of loopholes," says Nadthasiri.

"It's actually unfortunately very effective," says Adams. "If you bankrupt people and you go after their livelihoods and their assets, it is very intimidating. What is surprising is that they (the Thai government) allowed so many against people who they know should not have claims against them."

"There's a desire to allow companies to do this so that other companies can do it, maybe ones that are affiliated with the regime or other powerful people."

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And like other vocal public figures in Thailand, the prospect of two years in jail has forced Suchanee to reconsider her profession. "This was the lowest point in my life," says Suchanee. "I kept asking myself if I should stop being  a journalist. Then I asked myself, 'If a hundred journalists ask themselves the same question, then what is going to happen to society?'"

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"My family is begging me not to [work as a journalist] and I need to think about it. I need to clear my head of this and then figure it out."

As for the future of her case, she thinks she'll know about the outcome by the start of next year. If the appeal is rejected, she has resigned herself to accepting the outcome.

"If it happens, I have nowhere to go. I am Thai and this is my motherland. If it happens, I need to accept it. My family and my friends are here."

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