The Criminal Court has dismissed a petition by the Digital Economy and Society Ministry to remove a clip criticising the government’s Covid-19 vaccine policy by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
On Jan 18, the former leader of the disbanded Future Forward Party broadcast a video criticising the policy live on Facebook, YouTube and the website of the Progressive Movement, which he now chairs.
Two days later, the ministry filed a complaint with the police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division, accusing Mr Thanathorn of royal defamation (Section 112) and breaching the computer crime law.
Thai media reported on Jan 31 that the court had ordered the blocking of the clip on the three platforms for undermining internal security and violating the computer crime law.
On the following day, Mr Thanathorn exercised the right to challenge the order and asked the court to revoke it.
During the inquiry on Thursday, the clip was played in full in the courtroom and Mr Thanathorn was present to defend the case by himself.
The court dismissed the case on Monday, saying no part of the clip clearly showed he criticised or raised questions in any way that could be deemed insulting to the monarchy.
“There is no clear evidence it affects national security as outlined in Section 112, which could be ground for the court to stop the dissemination of the content,” the court said.
In the 30-minute clip, titled “Royal Vaccines: Who Wins, Who Loses”, Mr Thanathorn said the government’s plans to vaccinate Thai people were “too little, too late”.
He speculated the main cause was its mindset of “betting on only one horse”.
He was referring to the 26 million AstraZeneca shots to be made locally by 11-year-old Siam Bioscience, a company wholly owned by the king, and 2 million doses of Sinovac. Both lots would cover only 21% of the population, far short of the percentage needed to create herd immunity.
By the time the government realised this, he said, it would be too late to find more supplies as countries scramble to get their hands on the vaccines.
He pointed out that as long as people are not inoculated in adequate numbers, partial lockdowns would continue indefinitely, no tourists would come, the economy had no chance of recovering and people cannot resume their normal way of life.
Mr Thanathorn also mentioned the approval of the state budget for Siam Bioscience Co Ltd to upgrade its operations so it could make vaccines through a technology transfer from AstraZeneca.
In addition to the vaccine procurement plans, the former MP also found the vaccination schedule was not quick enough.
He cited the framework public health officials described to a House panel in late November. Under the plan, 11 million people would get the shots in 2021, another 11 million in 2022 and 10.5 million in 2023.
In total, 32.5 million people, or half of the population, would have been inoculated in 2023.
“This means people will have to live in semi-lockdowns for another three years. Not to mention there may be a third and a fourth wave and those who bear the biggest brunt are people who live hand-to-mouth and the fragile group with no access to welfare,” he said.
All of these led to his last question: how could Prime Minister Prayut approve such a deal?
“If anything bad happens, can Khun Prayut take the responsibility? What happens if production is delayed or distribution is viewed as unfair? If allergy occurs and the efficacy does not meet the target, can Khun Prayut take the responsibility? People will have issues with Siam Bioscience, whose sole shareholder is the king,” he said.
During the inquiry, the ministry questioned why Mr Thanathorn had to mention the name of Siam Bioscience’s owner when in practice it is the management who takes responsibility for a company for any wrongdoing, not shareholders.
The court also asked Mr Thanathorn why he used the term “royal vaccines”. He replied he was not the first to use it. “It was Gen Prayut and government agencies who first used or implied it that way,” he said.
The court viewed the term was borrowed from what the government had said earlier about the local vaccine production to show the mercy of the king. Mr Thanathorn's use of the word was therefore not a lie, which could cause damage to the king.
According to Manager Online, after the inquiry, the court summoned ministry officials to inform them of the change in its guideline for similar cases in the future.
The court told them a single-party inquiry would no longer be allowed, given the examples seen in previous cases such as that involving VoiceTV and in this case.
It instructed the ministry must inform the court of the address of the accused so it could summon him or her to the inquiry before the court orders the blocking or closures of online content.
To date, when the ministry asks the court to block online content, the accused -- who are generally home internet users -- have been unaware of their right to challenge the order and the court ends up complying with the ministry’s requests.
In the VoiceTV case, the management of the online news outlet defended itself and succeeded in having the court lift the order hours after imposing it.