Govt sedition cases breed fear, says HRW
Democrat legal team defends use of S116
The regime should stop bringing sedition charges against people who criticise the government as it feeds a climate of fear, a seminar was told.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Thailand, said the sedition charges, based on Section 116 of the Criminal Code, were rarely enforced before the 2014 coup and only a few cases reached a stage where verdicts were issued by the court.
After the putsch, Section 116 has been overtly and frequently used and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)'s orders triggered legal processes that took the cases to court, he said.
This instills fear among people who are critics and opponents of the NCPO, he said, citing an example where even people who took photos with a red bowl, deemed symbolic of the red shirt movement, faced sedition charges. Some lawyers who observed anti-coup demonstrations were also incriminated, he noted.
"The number of such cases keeps rising. There are at least 24 cases [related to alleged sedition] filed with the authorities to date with 66 people facing charges," said Mr Sunai, adding 20 of the cases concern people who had criticised the NCPO or the coup.
According to Mr Sunai, the enforcement of sedition charges creates a climate of fear as the offence, which is described by law as being related to security matters, carries a jail term of up to seven years.
Section 116 is seen as a way to muzzle people who voice opinions critical of the regime, he said.
Giving another example, Mr Sunai said authorities also brought sedition charges against Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior staff reader for online news site Khaosod English, who criticised the charter and the NCPO.
The frequent use of the sedition charge speaks of the government's increasing intolerance of opposing viewpoints and its reluctance to be monitored, which could well be symptomatic of the regime's desire to cling to power, he said.
Mr Sunai was speaking at a seminar on Section 116 and the national reforms at the Thai Journalists Association yesterday.
Also speaking at the event, Jakkrit Permpoon, editor of the Lanna Post newspaper, said authorities in the past only used defamation charges, which carry a jail term of up to one year, to gag the media. The cases were eventually settled out of court.
Now, media practitioners and the public risk facing more serious charges under laws like the Computer Crime Act, lese majeste and Section 116, he noted.
"I won't say whether what Mr Pravit did was right or wrong. But he should not be facing charges under Section 116 as he could not have incited people to stand against state power. The worst he should have faced was a defamation charge," said Mr Jakkrit.
Wirat Kalayasiri, head of the Democrat Party's legal team, said the regime appears to be exercising Section 116 primarily to curb growing hate speech since the charter does not provide any channel to deal with such issues.
He said those who face sedition charges have various legal channels open to them to fight the cases as guaranteed by the constitution, as long as they only issued "honest" criticisms and did not resort to force or try to overthrow the government.
Seree Suwannapanon, a member of the national reform committee on the justice process, said Section 116 allows those in power to seek prosecution against offences concerning national security.
When the political conflicts ease Section 116 should be used sparingly, he noted.