Gag order not a solution
Failing to control Covid transmission, the government has returned to its usual autocratic playbook by controlling news about Covid instead.
The desperate stratagem is the latest enactment of this playbook and issued late on Thursday -- a move that had been predicted by media professionals since early this month. Signed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, this new order issued in compliance with Section 9 of the Emergency Decree became effective yesterday.
The prime minister has explained that this latest order is just an effort to stem fake news -- disinformation that has undermined the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At face value, this rhetoric is justified and timely. To be fair, misinformation and disinformation from spin doctors have been spread across the media like wildfire. Meanwhile, media standards and content seriously need a major redressing. But that is a correction process to be taken by consumers, media professionals and market mechanisms. It is not the calling of a democratically elected government to gag the press to eradicate fake news. There is more than enough legislation to hold the media accountable and handle fake news such as libel laws, computer crime legislation and even Section 112.
The order's problem is its vagueness which appears to give law enforcers a blank cheque to exercise a subjective interpretation of "content that frightens the public". Essentially, the order prohibits anyone from "reporting news or disseminating information that may frighten people or intentionally distorting information to cause a misunderstanding about the emergency situation, which may eventually affect state security, order or good morality of the people".
This media gag order has been used far too many times in Thailand; it has been popular among coup makers and autocratic governments desperately needing to navigate public opinion. History has proven its advantages are rather short-lived. Either in spirited student protests in the 70s, the bloody coup in 1992 or SLAPP lawsuits that a civilian government used to silence critics in the 90s, media and press freedom have endured and survived governments, whether they've been despotic or not.
The government therefore should repeal this order, not only because it undermines freedom of expression; it will also be a disservice for the government and its Covid-19 measures. It will undermine public confidence and alienate the government from society and media at a crucial time when the government needs allies to help fight Covid.
The government will eventually find that it is impossible to control the internet; only a few governments in this world can -- such as the Chinese government. The way to deal with misinformation and disinformation is not placing a gag order, but to have a cool head, open mind, good communication skills, and for this government especially, an insanely good PR team.
To control fake news, the government should look in the mirror. It is unquestionable that some of the information it says "frightens" the public stems from the government through its flip-flopping vaccine schemes, on-and-off mobile apps, contradictory orders, to name but a few.
It's a pity that the government, particularly Gen Prayut, does not seem to be aware that the current reality is the most frightening news for this country.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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