By Mark S. Cogan
In the seven years since Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power, he has spent a considerable period of time as premier securitizing disinformation. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), already fully in control of the public through strict bans on public gathering and attitude adjustments, moved quickly into the practice of digital repression, including the manipulation of online information. Even after the March 2019 election gave Prayut a veneer of legitimacy, his paranoia viewed public dissent as a threat, both to the institutions that strengthen his political power, but also to Thailand’s national security. Now after a period of trial-and-error, Prayut’s late July decree nearly consolidated an official version of truth as a means of cementing his hold on power.
The last turbulent year has hastened attempts by Thai authorities to both contain disinformation, or what it deems “fake news,” as well as frame the spread of that information as a legitimate national security threat. Through a series of emergency decrees and related draconian laws, the government has declared itself as the sole arbiter of truth and the sole distributor of punishment for potential violators. It was Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan who announced in 2019 that the regime would pursue legal action against people who were disseminating “news and information distorted with the intent to provoke violence in society and generate hatred.” At that moment, the Thai government had placed into the realm of national security any kind of speech that would negatively impact its reputation. An anti-fake news center was established that same year, with a mission to scan the internet for violators.
Traditionally, the domain of securitization was centered around the protection of institutions and symbols of power, namely the Thai monarchy, in which its image and associated narrative of truth are closely guarded and defended. In the past year, where Thai society has openly questioned the role of the monarchy, 103 people from anti-government protests have been charged with lèse majesté, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
In pursuit of its enemies or purveyors of what it deems fake news, the Thai government has employed institutions as weapons. In June, through the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES), the regime ordered internet service providers to close the accounts of pro-democracy activists deemed to have posted fake news on websites and social networks, including Royalist Marketplace, a Facebook group with more than 1 million members. The June crackdown on fake news also prompted the Royal Thai Police under Pol. Gen. Suwat Jangyodsuk to vow to work closely with MDES to “monitor fake news and identify, track down and arrest perpetrators.” In the space of just the past few weeks, the regime has cast a wider net, most notably, threatening 18-year old rapper Danupa “Milli” Kanaterrakul, who faces charges of defamation after criticizing Prayut on social media over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The threats against Danupa confirmed a pattern of draconian means, as evidenced by the arrest of Danai Ussama, and artist who was charged with violating the Computer Crime Act in March 2020 for Facebook posts claiming that no COVID-19 screening was being conducted at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. MDES claimed that Danai’s post “created panic for the public and eroded their confidence in [the airport].”
The coronavirus pandemic itself has moved from a topic of common public chatter to a matter of national security, as the government aims to contain negative portrayals of its performance and silence mediums for legitimate criticism. The government’s latest fake news order aimed to ban the intentional distortion of information that “causes a misunderstanding about the emergency situation, which may eventually affect state security, order or good morality of the people.”
The most recent edict from the government ordered institutions and line ministries to “take action against individuals spreading fake news about COVID-19, which might cause confusion during the pandemic.” While the government claimed that the new order was in response to social media rumors about a shutdown of the Bang Sue vaccination center, the likely target is not as much the public as it is the free press. Prayut’s disdain for local and international press is well-documented, as is his record of cracking down on media organizations that distribute content in violation of the government’s state of emergency. A number of media organizations spoke out about the new decree—and took the matter to court.
It was here at the judicial level that the regime encountered resistance from Thailand’s Civil Court, which ruled that the July 30 edict was a “superfluous and unnecessary deprivation” of individual rights and freedoms. It was a rare check on executive power so used to very limited checks and balances, one that aimed to order internet service providers to block access to individual IP addresses if they were deemed to be spreading fake news.
Still, information in Thailand is being securitized through methods that are imprecise at best. The national security parameters of the state are ill-defined, which invites abuses by politicians and authorities with political agendas, as demonstrated by the continued harassment of former Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Judging by the spread of aspects of Thai society that are increasingly under the broad umbrella of national security, information control will continue to tighten like a noose around the neck of the body politic, while paranoia reigns at the highest levels of government.
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