Thai politicos urged to prioritize digital rights in run-up to election

Image created by Midjourney.
Image created by Midjourney.

Thailand’s next general election date is now set, and digital rights advocates have called on its political parties to prioritize digital rights and freedom of expression.

EngageMedia, a nonprofit promoting digital rights in Southeast Asia, has released a four-point agenda that identifies policies to protect digital rights and ensure access to information.

“The exercise of freedom of expression is severely repressed in Thailand,” EngagegMedia said in the report. “Barely a year after the general election in 2019, local authorities revisited the use of vaguely-worded laws—namely the Computer Crime Act (CCA), Article 112 (lese-majeste) and Article 116 (sedition) of the country’s Penal Code—to penalise critics, journalists, human rights activists, academics, and students over critical content directed at public officials.

The agenda highlights the need for a regulatory framework that protects digital rights, access to information, privacy protection, and the development of digital literacy.

First, it suggests amending the constitution to extend civil liberties into the digital realm, clarify existing language about rights, and strip royal insult and sedition from the Penal Code, among other suggestions.

To ensure access to information, it asks candidates to commit to ending a bid to rewrite the Official Information Act, which in 1997 became the first freedom of information law in ASEAN. It also wants them to update the Computer Crime Act, and sober up the telecoms regulation agency to be a neutral arbiter of fairness and independence rather than a regime censorship tool.

Given the military-backed government’s renewed appetite for cracking into citizens’ data through cracking software and other forms of surveillance, the agenda calls for tightening up relevant laws to dissuade it.

That would mean giving the courts a role in administering the Computer Crime Act, dropping immunity for officials under vague national security exemptions, and just stop hacking and doxxing people that they don’t like.

As for enhancing digital literacy and combatting disinformation, the report notes the government’s role as “a purveyor of disinformation.”

“In 2020 and 2022, leaked confidential documents revealed that the Thai military enlisted as many as 17,000 personnel to spread online disinformation, promoting pro-government narratives while discrediting vocal critics and human rights defenders,” it said. “21 Prominent rights activists subjected to these smear campaigns included Angkhana Neelapaijit and Anchana Heemmina, who criticised the mistreatment of Muslim minorities in three southernmost provinces of Thailand.”

It suggests shutting down its so-called Anti-Fake News Center and handing its role to a public organization, prioritizing the removal of demonstrably false information rather than threatening to prosecute people, and ending the government’s role in weaponizing disinformation against its critics.

Read the full report in English and Thai. Of course, getting politicians to take such suggestions seriously is another matter given their usual roles in active political repression and censorship. 

After dissolving parliament, Thailand this week set Election Day for May 14.

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