Don’t exploit pandemic emergency to quash dissent: Human Rights Watch

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announces a state of emergency on Thursday afternoon. Photo: ThaiGov
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announces a state of emergency on Thursday afternoon. Photo: ThaiGov

Thailand’s government should not use its newly invoked state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to prosecute critics and silence whistleblowers, an international human rights group has urged.

Citing the recent arrest of an artist who publicized the lack of screening at the nation’s busiest airport, Human Rights Watch called on the government of Prayuth Chan-o-cha to end such prosecutions as it was set to embrace sweeping emergency powers that include censoring the media.

“Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech.”

The group cited Monday’s arrested of Danai Ussama at his art gallery in Phuket at the behest of Airports of Thailand, the national airport operator, over a post earlier this month in which he wrote that he encountered no serious screening at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport upon his return from Spain.

“Whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists have faced retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they criticized government response to the outbreak and reported alleged corruption related to hoarding of surgical masks and other supplies and black-market profiteering,” Human Rights Watch said. “Thai authorities also threatened some medical staff with disciplinary action, including termination of employment contracts and revocation of their licenses, for speaking out about the severe shortage of essential supplies in hospitals across the country.”

Addressing the nation Tuesday, Gen. Prayuth cautioned that attempts to “distort” information would be punished. He said information would be censored as needed and threatened prosecution under his the Computer Crime Act, his administration’s de facto legal tool against dissent.

Prayuth said it was necessary to safeguard the public from panic and ensure “good morale.”

It comes as he and his government meet a rising tide of anger of its handling of the crisis. Like other governments now coping with spiraling outbreaks, it played down the severity of the threat and was seen as prioritizing image-crafting over transparency.

Thailand on Thursday reported 111 more COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 1,045 since January. It says four have died.

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