The Thai government’s shutdown of the outspoken Voice TV channel misuses Thailand’s emergency decree to censor the media, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
On October 20, 2020, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society announced at a news conference that the government had obtained a court order to close down Voice TV on all online platforms. The ministry alleged that the station’s coverage of a democracy protest in Bangkok on October 16 violated media restrictions under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations and the Computer-Related Crime Act.
“Banning Voice TV is the Thai government’s latest attempt to stop the reporting about democracy protests and ensuing abuses against protesters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The crackdown is part of a bigger effort to bully and control the media into becoming a government mouthpiece.”
On October 15, before the station’s online platforms were shut down, the Thai authorities pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV. Since the May 2014 military coup that brought Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to power, the government has targeted Voice TV for censorship and punitive sanctions more than any other TV station in Thailand.
The government has also requested a shutdown order for three other online media services – The Reporters, The Standard, and Prachatai – citing similar reasons. In addition, Human Rights Watch obtained a document showing that the government is also seeking to block the Free Youth democracy movement’s accounts on the Telegram application.
On October 15, Prime Minister Prayuth declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. The United Nations, Thai human rights organizations, and Human Rights Watch, among others, raised concerns about the state of emergency on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Thailand.
The Emergency Decree empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship that violates the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media commentary critical of the monarchy, the government, and the political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests was declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.
That day, police arrested a Prachatai journalist, Kitti Pantapak, while was he was broadcasting the police’s dispersal of a democracy protest in Bangkok. True Visions is licensed to run the BBC World Service, CNN, and Al Jazeera English on its cable TV network, but it has blocked the broadcast of news reporting on the protests in Thailand. In addition, Thai authorities have blocked access to the online petition site Change.org, after it hosted a petition calling for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to be declared persona non grata in Germany.
The government has shown increasing hostility toward pro-democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 81 protesters have been arrested since the declaration of state of emergency in Bangkok.
International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reform, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views.
In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies, harass pro-democracy activists, and enforce censorship.
“Concerned governments and the United Nations should publicly demand an immediate end to the Thai government’s censorship and political repression,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Prayuth should immediately lift Voice TV’s ban and end further attempts to stifle media freedom and free speech in Thailand.”