Govt must focus on virus, not information
It was supposed to be a strong pill prescribed to contain the spread of Covid-19. But the chilling reality is the invocation of the Emergency Decree, which goes into effect from Thursday and will run until the end of April, is regularly misused by the authorities to curb freedom of speech and free flow of information.
At a time when transparency has proved to be a vital factor attributing to the success of countries such as Taiwan and South Korea in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, the Thai government should not be distracted by its obsession with controlling what people say or write.
Instead it should focus on what should be its first and foremost priority -- restricting the movement of people and physical contact to minimise the spread of the virus.
Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has insisted that forbidding the publication of distorted information and "fake news" be part of key measures imposed under the decree.
The special law concentrates the powers of different ministries in the hands of one person -- the prime minister. It also allows authorities to conduct searches and arrest people with impunity.
Even without the decree in place, the authorities have already adopted a harsh approach to controlling the dissemination of information.
On Monday, Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta told the media that police have arrested 42-year-old Thai artist, Danai Usama, at his home in Phuket and charged him with publishing "false information" on Facebook. His post shed light on what he claimed was a lack of screening procedures for Covid-19 infections at Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The man had returned from Spain early this month and claimed that he and other travellers had passed through immigration without being screened.
He later told Prachatai news agency that he had posted the message because he detected there were a number of thermal scanners installed on the roof of the airport, which he believes is an insufficiently strict measure compared to other international airports.
Mr Danai has been charged with violating the draconian Computer Crime Act, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. He has been under custody since Tuesday.
Suspecting he had been infected by Covid-19, Mr Danai said he planned to quarantine himself at home for 14 days from March 16, the Reporters news agency said.
The arrest, however, ended his quarantine prematurely and if he is infected, he could become a health risk to other cell mates. It is still unclear whether he is in isolation.
Whether the information he posted is false or true, it has not caused uncontrollable panic or risked public health on a scale that demands such criminal charges.
He is just one of the many netizens and media professionals who have tried to play an active role in keeping the government and its incompetence in check since the virus broke out in country in January.
Instead, his post should have prompted authorities to check whether the screening procedures at the airport are effective and sufficient.
The authorities have also not revealed whether they tried to secure security footage at the airport to investigate Mr Danai's claim.
Before this, a video clip was posted on a Facebook page, Maem Phodam, alleging that a minister's aide was involved in hoarding face masks. The minister denied it.
This allegation, in fact, shed light on the unfolding mystery of Thailand's chronic shortage of face masks over the past few months. It also prompted questions as to whether there have been irregularities in the export of face masks.
A House committee on Wednesday held an inquiry with customs officials over the unusually high number of masks being exported in early February, just a few days before the government declared masks a controlled product.
Harsh criticism by netizens and the media have helped expose weaknesses and inefficiency of certain government leaders tackling the outbreak.
Yet the premier insisted on Wednesday that under the decree, the media can only cite information from one government source and called on everybody to tackle fake news on social media.
This is not good. Imposing controls on the flow of information under this special law can pave the way for widespread abuse of power.
The government should limit the use of this measure to cases of "fake news" that were demonstrably made with malicious intent and which actually have the ability to wreak havoc or endanger public health.
During this critical hour, the government should set its priorities straight: Controlling the spread of the virus is important, not the flow of information.
Deputy Op-ed Editor
Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed pages editor, Bangkok Post.