Govt living in fear of its own frightful errors
If members of the government were to uphold the same ethical standards they often preach to the people, they would have hung their heads in shame after the Civil Court's injunction last week.
The court's decision barring Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha from prosecuting anyone who publicises content that "frightens people",' even if it's true, and suspending his or her Internet Protocol (IP) address is a setback to the government legally and politically.
Above all, it is shameful. It is humiliating for the government to apparently be caught trying to abuse its power and deprive citizens of their rights, particularly to access the internet, which even the court noted is crucial during the Covid-19 crisis.
Legally, the court's decision made it clear that the government's attempt to block reports that cause fear was unconstitutional.
The government issued the regulation using the power of the emergency decree after news reports and social media pictures showing corpses on Bangkok streets, some of them people who had died of Covid-19, had been circulated.
The distressing content unleashed heavy criticism against the government for mismanaging the Covid-19 pandemic.
The court's decision essentially deprived the government of its legal high ground.
The administration often gets on its soapbox and tells everyone it is doing everything strictly by the law.
It has preached to anti-government protesters and the growing number of critics unsatisfied with its handling of the Covid-19 crisis that they should abide by the law as well.
Now that the government has been exposed as using the power of the emergency decree to issue a regulation that was deemed unlawful, what grounds does it have to lecture other people?
The first blow was hard enough but that was not all.
Regarding the PM's threat to suspend the IP addresses of people found to have violated the regulation by spreading information that frightens people, misrepresents facts, provokes misunderstanding or jeopardises national security, the court said the emergency decree provided the PM was not authorised to do so.
Does this sound like abuse of power?
Under the ruling, the government can be seen not only as trying to go against the constitution to restrict people's freedom of speech but also to exercise more power than it has to impose internet censorship even though it had other legal instruments to curb the dissemination of "fake news" or to provide the public with a better understanding about false information.
The case could also show that the government does not seem to care how important internet access is to people living under the constant threat and fear of Covid-19 either.
As part of its ruling, the civil court said internet access is crucial to people's daily lives especially amid the Covid-19 emergency when lockdown measures prevent them from travelling or meeting one another.
The court also noted that the government's "frightening content" regulation did not seek to suspend internet services only for a specific act but extend it into the future which could generate the risk of irreparable damage.
The court decided the regulation will hinder the ability to communicate and disseminate information by people who don't have malicious intent. That is why it found the government's attempt to suspend IP addresses against freedom of communication, which is again, unconstitutional.
It is embarrassing for the government to come across as apparently abusive and uncaring. But the shame could be more profound.
Politically, the attempt to bar the publication of "frightening content" speaks volumes about the government's insecurity.
What is there to fear? One does not need to be a legal ace to see that the definition of a "crime" in this case is too loose, leaving ample room for interpretation and abuse of power.
The Phuket Sandbox murder? The PM vowing to stay on despite criticism? Who can judge which content genuinely causes fear?
The fact that the government chose to pursue the seemingly reckless regulatory option suggests it is either so desperate to curb the criticism that it did not care about how it did so or that it intentionally engaged in the apparently flawed act to draw people's attention away from the backlash.
Either way, the government is giving the impression that its back is against the wall. The lockdown is not producing a visibly positive effect. Indeed, infections and fatalities are still accelerating. Vaccine supplies appear sporadic. Hospitals are buckling with patients lying in corridors.
Do these stories, the facts of which are happening right here under its watch, frighten the government? What does it fear? The "frightening" content or the multiple failures that seem to have generated it?
Atiya Achakulwisut is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.