Speech curbs hold back nation
Last week's final acquittal of rights activist Andy Hall by the Supreme Court, whilst certainly welcome and the correct verdict, was also a stark reminder of just how damaging to free speech Thailand's laws are.
In 2013, interviews that Mr Hall conducted with migrant workers employed by Natural Fruit Co were published in the Finnwatch report "Cheap Has a High Price" provoking the pineapple producer to launch a raft of legal challenges aimed at not only stifling the allegations about its practices but also seeing the activist put behind bars.
After the first of many drawn-out processes in the case, in September 2016 the Bangkok South Criminal court slapped Mr Hall with a four-year jail term, reduced by one year and suspended by two years, and ordered him to pay a fine of 200,000 baht, reduced to 150,000 baht.
It was a verdict seen as yet another example of the protection afforded to businesses and individuals when legitimate questions are raised over their conduct.
Although the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed in the constitution, it is riddled with caveats that allow for prosecutions to occur under both long-established and newly enacted legislation which, in essence, leave this right totally neutered -- a token gesture in a country organised to protect and maintain the status quo at all levels.
On these shores, truth is often no defence if a reputation is considered to have been tarnished.
A scathing Human Rights Watch report in late 2019, among recommending a wealth of necessary changes to its legal framework, urged the need to "amend Thailand's criminal laws to conform to international human rights standards for freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly".
Charges of criminal defamation and "disseminating false information" have frequently been rolled out against individuals criticising the government while private companies and individuals are also often quick to use criminal defamation laws against activists and human rights defenders who have tried to shine a light on labour violations.
A similar case against journalist Suchanee Cloitre late last year, which saw her sentenced to two years in jail for a tweet about workers' grievances at a Lop Buri-based poultry farm, only adds weight to what should now be an overwhelming push to bring Thailand kicking and screaming into the 21st century with regard to emboldening its citizens to act to protect human rights and rein in institutional corruption and malpractice.
Thailand finds itself at a crossroads.
Before the enacting of an emergency decree supposedly to allow it to better deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the government had been faced with mounting protests, mostly led by student groups, against its complicity in the disbanding of the Future Forward Party as well as its liberal use of the Computer Crime Law, and other alleged less official actions, to silence critics of its policies and ascent to power. Even though coronavirus is no longer a serious threat, the government refuses to revoke the decree which has been used by the authorities to intimidate state critics even in harmless symbolic events, like the white bow campaign for missing activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit.
There is clearly a growing movement among a younger generation whose whole lives have been furnished with access to the internet, and consequently an ability to circumvent attempts to control the flow of information by the state concerning many supposedly taboo subjects.
Whether it is Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha himself, or one of his successors from that same old guard which has clung to the strings of power, both up front as now, or behind the scenes as at times in the past, it is time to recognise an unstoppable wave -- that of a new generation that will accept nothing other than the same freedoms as their global peers -- and rewrite the lawbook to remove provisions that only serve to preserve this country's self-defeating systems of patronage.
Perhaps then, Thailand, which was already suffering from a severe economic downturn even before Covid-19 struck, can achieve its potential to become not only a progressive rights leader and modernising force in Asean, but also a dynamic, highly investable territory with a growing economy driven by the intelligence, creativity and passion of those same young innovators that our ruling class is doing such a good job of alienating.
While legal battles over the Finnwatch report rumble on, with another final Supreme Court ruling due in two weeks' time on an appeal against a 10 million baht fine imposed in 2018 over an interview given to Al Jazeera in Myanmar concerning Natural Fruit's practices, Andy Hall, despite his victory in court, has said he will never return to this country, at least not until defamation is decriminalised and what he calls the "irrational cycle of litigation" against him and his fellow human rights defenders ends. And, right now, who can blame him?
Bangkok Post editorial column
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