Witch-hunts will backfire

Witch-hunts will backfire

The government must rein in an overzealous tendency to prosecute people or have them prosecute one another in the name of national security and protection of the monarchy.

The remark by Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Minister Pornchai Rujiprapa on Tuesday that the authorities are capable of monitoring private messages on the Line application is worrying.

His insistence that the ICT can track Line messages to their source and take legal action against those who send them in the event they are found to have breached national security or defamed the monarchy raises a major question over whether the government is violating the privacy of its own citizens.

Mr Pornchai's remark was quickly rebutted by Line Thailand which insisted that the company fully respects its customers' right to private communication.

The company also said it will not hand over any information regarding the content of what is circulated on its platform or about people who use its service without a court order.

The response from Line Thailand prompted the ICT minister to backtrack a little. According to news reports, Mr Pornchai said the ministry will not be snooping on personal messages. The ICT was only urging people who come upon messages that insult the monarchy or compromise national security to file complaints with the authorities who will then check on their history and identify those who send them.

Mr Pornchai's clarification evoked an equally disturbing spectre. The weakness of the lese majeste law, meant to protect the revered institution of the monarchy, is that it allows anyone to file this serious charge against others.

The shortcoming has led to the law, which carries a minimum punishment of three years in prison, being abused for political reasons over many years.

The case in which the Democrat Party's legal chief Wirat Kalayasiri threatened to file a lese majeste charge against red-shirt campaigner Suda Rangkuphan is illustrative of this flaw.

Mr Wirat claimed that Ms Suda's Facebook message urging people to wear black this month to show disapproval of the Democrats' handling of the Financial Sector Restructuring Authority set up to clear bad loans racked up during the 1997 financial crisis is offensive to the monarchy.

His reason is December is His Majesty the King's birth month and many Thais have taken to wearing yellow to honour him.

Ms Suda did not mention the monarchy in her posting. The Democrat, however, vowed to pursue legal action against her anyway.

When it comes to the sensitive issues of national security and slandering the monarchy, the ICT's urging of people to monitor what one person communicates with another risks invoking an atmosphere of witch-hunts. Such paranoia will not help the government forge peace and unity as it leads the country back to democracy.

The government must also be mindful of its legal obligations to the Thai people. Even under martial law, the provisional charter is in place that upholds citizens' rights as provided under the tradition of the constitutional monarchy. Those rights include the right to privacy and liberty of communication.

The 2007 charter specifically stated that a person "shall enjoy the liberty of communication by lawful means", and that communication between people shall not be disclosed. It's true that an exception can always be made where security of the state and public morals are concerned but these two issues should never be interpreted loosely.

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