Decree risks overreach

Decree risks overreach

Since the state of emergency was declared and the curfew imposed nationwide, hundreds of people have been arrested and charged for breaking the special laws.

Law enforcement has been disproportionate. The authorities have taken harsh action against people as if they have caused widespread violence and mayhem, suggesting that the government has lost sight of the fact that the special laws were put in place to restrict movements and gatherings to contain the spread of Covid-19.

A week after invoking the Emergency Decree -- tentatively in effect until the end of this month -- from Friday the government began imposing a 10pm to 4am curfew "until further notice".

Since then, police report that at least 810 people have been charged with breaking the curfew. Another 29 have been booked with computer crimes for posting or sharing fake news about the Covid-19 outbreak.

The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has forbidden the publication of distorted information and "fake news". These restrictions are some of the key measures imposed under the emergency decree. They have also caused concern among the public, given that both his previous and current governments have used the Computer Crime Act (CCA) and other laws excessively to arrest and file charges against political dissidents, opposition politicians and social media users.

Before the decree took effect, the police arrested a 42-year-old artist, Danai Usama, and charged him with violating the CCA for publishing "false information" on Facebook. In his Facebook post, Danai criticised a lack of screening procedures for Covid-19 infections at Suvarnabhumi airport.

Since then, more people have faced the same charge. The police said that the information they posted or shared has caused panic in society, without elaborating further.

It is ill-considered for the government to include media controls as part of its regulations issued under the decree. During times of outbreak, the free flow of information should be granted to promote transparency, particularly when it comes to the state's handling of the situation.

As it still cannot be ruled out whether the decree will be extended, the government should not try to have people locked up for what they write or share on the internet as long as it cannot solidly prove that they had malicious intention to cause widespread panic. If there is inaccurate information spread on social media, the job of the authorities is to correct it.

The government should be aware that during this time of widespread social anxiety, anyone may share information without knowing it is false. That includes their own own anti-fake news centre, which on Friday wrongly notified the public that a news report on the number of horses killed by a viral disease called African Horse Sickness in Nakhon Ratchasima was fake news. But that story ended up being the real McCoy. The centre later issues a correction, chalking up its error to a misunderstanding.

Also disproportionate is the treatment of those charged with breaking curfew. The police said they have been imprisoned, detained or fined, when what the authorities should have done is give them a warning.

During this unprecedented public health crisis, the authorities should avoid needlessly locking people up together in cells at close quarters. After all, this does not promote social distancing, but rather authoritarian rule instead.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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