By Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Thai officials said Wednesday they obtained an arrest warrant for a London-based Thai woman who allegedly used Facebook to spread false information about the junta, as rights activists raised concern over what they described as “criminalization of freedom of expression” in Southeast Asia.
Watana Ebbage, 56, who administers the Facebook page “KonthaiUK” from England, is to be arrested for allegedly posting graphic images that affected national security, Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters in Bangkok.
“We issued a red warrant,” Prawit told reporters at the Defense Ministry in Bangkok, using another term for an Interpol “red notice” or an international arrest warrant issued against people wanted for extradition.
Prawit described Watana as “the one with penchant of distorting news about the prime minister.”
Watana’s post included images of airships, satellites and photos of Prawit and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the junta leader. The posting implied that the government’s recent plan to buy satellites and its U.S. $10 million (321 million baht) purchase of a faulty blimp, which was dumped last year, were part of a corrupt scheme.
The Facebook post read: “The balloon was a dud, but you want to buy 91.2 billion baht ($2.84 billion) satellite for kickback. Do we let them do it?”
“Such modifications may cause panic among people who may believe the information is real,” Thai tourist police chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters, referring to Watana’s post.
The blimp was plagued by a series of malfunctions before it was decommissioned in 2017. Meanwhile, the Thai defense ministry announced last week that it was studying the feasibility of building or acquiring its own satellites.
The court approved the warrant for Watana’s arrest on the charge of importing information into a computer system that compromises national security after authorities determined that she was the registrant of the Facebook page.
She was charged with violating the Computer Crime Act, which is punishable by up to five years in prison, a senior police official told BenarNews.
Watana’s post went viral with more than 10,000 Facebook shares. In addition, charges have been filed against 29 others for sharing the false information, Surachate told reporters after meeting with Prawit on Wednesday.
On June 1, police filed criminal charges against a Cambodian man who allegedly posted a false report about the Thai prime minister on his website. Authorities said the information might undermine the country’s national security.
Ratanak Heng, 21, was arrested in Phnom Penh by Cambodian police at the request of the Thai government. He was turned over to Thai police and flown the same day to Thailand, where he told reporters he was sorry. If convicted, Ratanak will face imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of 100,000 baht ($3,175) or both, authorities said.
Prayuth took power on May 22, 2014, after leading a coup that toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Since then, the military junta has detained political leaders and imposed laws aimed at gagging dissent, rights activists said.
The nation’s defense budget has almost tripled over the last decade as the nation experienced two military takeovers.
Fake news proliferate online
During the past few months, rights groups have raised alarms over a series of legal moves across Southeast Asia where legislators are expanding existing regulations by invoking the proliferation of fake news online to introduce stricter laws.
On Wednesday, journalists and rights advocates gathered at a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok to discuss what they described as the “criminalization of freedom of expression” as a disturbing regional trend.
In April, Cambodia’s last independent newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, was sold to a Malaysian investor with links to Prime Minister Hun Sen. In late May, the Cambodian authorities announced restrictions on reporters covering next month’s elections.
Two former employees of Radio Free Asia’s Cambodia bureau, which closed under government pressure last September, were detained in November on espionage charges and remain in custody.
In the Philippines, the government in January ordered the closure of online news service Rappler, which had been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
In Thailand, nearly 100 people have been charged with sedition for expressing opinions or holding peaceful protests since the May 2014 coup.
Matthew Bugher, who heads the Asia Program for Article 19, an international human rights organization that promotes the right to freedom of expression and information, told the forum that the list keeps growing longer in the region specifically targeting freedom of expression.
“Social media can be used as an outlet for discussing things which you can’t discuss elsewhere, but the governments are not taking it lying down,” he said.