Lessons from COVID-19: time for freedom of expression online

7 June 2563

Amnesty International

As countries worldwide have struggled to adapt to restrictions imposed in the Covid-19 pandemic, online space has provided a valuable means of expression and social participation. From connecting patients and doctors, family and friends, to keeping teams working together, it has provided an essential substitute for physical presence to help maintain people’s livelihoods and social interactions. And with restrictions on public gatherings in place, the significance of online space to exercise human rights has grown.


While governments move to lift restrictions on movement and ease people into a new normal daily life, they should ensure that the current legal framework on online communication, including exchanges on social media, meets society’s needs for a rights respecting internet. There is no better time for the Thai government to reverse its poor record on freedom of expression online. Thais who wish to share information to discuss problems or spark debates must be able to do so without fear of prosecution. Human rights defenders must be able to use online space to defend rights of those affected by the various impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including on livelihoods and health.  


However, in recent years, the climate for freedom of expression online in Thailand has been one of fear. Since the May 2014 coup, authorities have not done enough to ensure people are free to express themselves online, as reflected in the authorities’ handling of online expression during the pandemic. Laws have continued to be used by officials and companies alike to disproportionately restrict the right to freedom of expression. High on the list are criminal defamation and computer-related charges which have been deployed to prosecute activists and others for expressing opinions that raise concern about abuses. Such lawsuits, and the use of excessively restrictive laws serve to limit debate on matters of public concern and negatively affect peoples’ rights to freedom of expression and information. 


Such a key part of our lives should be regulated to uphold, not arbitrarily deny the right to freedom of expression. Measures that stifle discussion – including harassment of people for expressing their opinions and prosecutions under vaguely-worded laws and criminal prosecutions for critical opinions expressed or shared – will ultimately be detrimental to a society that needs to work together to find solutions, including in times of crisis. 


Thailand currently has opportunities to change its selectively repressive approach to online freedom through existing commitments. It has a National Action Plan – unique in the region - on business and human rights. The plan undertakes to review, amend or abolish repressive laws, as well as relevant mechanisms to facilitate the protection of human rights defenders, who have faced extensive prosecutions by companies for their online defence of human rights. Thailand has a blueprint of obligations to uphold the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, through a range of international human rights treaties that it has ratified. It has also amended Articles 161/1 and 165/2 of the Criminal Procedural Code, for the purpose of preventing misuse of the criminal justice system to harass human rights defenders.


The urgent need for Thailand to act on these commitments has been highlighted by a range of ongoing criminal cases filed by companies against human rights defenders. On 8 June 2020, the Bangkok Criminal Court is scheduled to deliver its verdict in the prosecution of two activists – Myanmar migrant worker Nan Win, and human rights expert Sutharee Wannasiri. Since 2018 the pair have faced charges for criminal defamation after they spoke online on Facebook and Twitter about working conditions in a Thai poultry farm. The government’s failure to provide effective protection of their right to freedom of expression flies in the face of its commitments to the business and human rights action plan, which promises to protect those working to improve working conditions. 


The two have been targeted along with more than a dozen other individuals in a series of defamation lawsuits filed by the poultry farm – seen as strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP). Their actions – commenting online about the alleged treatment of workers, and showing online solidarity for others who have been unduly prosecuted – should never have been treated as crimes. Such cases have a chilling effect on freedom of expression by preventing others from speaking out for fear of prosecution. 


Their prosecution also highlights the fact that Thailand still criminalises defamation, despite a growing trend globally towards its decriminalisation. The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that imprisoning individuals for defamation is neither a necessary nor an appropriate punishment, and that states who are party to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should decriminalise it. 


As the prospect of easing COVID-19 restrictions nears, Thai authorities should be planning to make its human rights commitments a reality, by ensuring legislation, and its implementation, effectively protects online freedom of expression and prevents the harassment of activists and all others seeking to exercise this right. Moves to decriminalise defamation and to review legal provisions and state practices are the only way forward if the Thai government is to prove its commitment to a society that includes a plurality of voices, where people can debate and exchange of information online without fear of punishment.