SEAPA welcomes government engagement on issue of freedom of expression

Thailand underwent the first review of its human rights performance before United Nations Human Rights Council and UN member states on 5 October and discussed steps it was taking to assure freedom of expression.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a new system through which the human rights record of all 192 UN member states are reviewed once every four years. The process began in 2007 and since then the Council has convened annually for four separate sessions during which sixteen countries are evaluated by their peers.

Each review is based on country report submitted by the country under review as well as information received from stakeholders including NGOs and civil society organizations.

During Thailand’s review, multiple countries expressed concerns over the protection and promotion of freedom of expression in Thailand and asked specifically whether the country intended to review its lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act.

Thailand’s lese majeste law allows for anyone found to be insulting the King or members of the royal family to be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. The Computer Crimes Act has become an instrument of the lese majeste law as any views expressed on the Internet related to the monarchy and found to be a threat to national security can lead to a 5-year prison sentence.

Representatives of the Thai government responded that: “The rationale behind this law [lese majeste] is not to restrict the freedom of speech.” They elaborated on measures they have taken to prevent misuse of the lese majeste law, including the establishment of a Committee in the Royal Thai Police headquarters to assure “each charge has legal merit and an application of consistent criteria.” They said that the Computer Crimes Act “is currently undergoing amendment during which the government will gather more views from all stakeholders to insure the law is in line with international standards.”

Over the course of the review, different member states of the Human Rights Council issued a wide range of recommendations for Thailand to improve its human rights performance. Half of the recommendations were accepted by the Thai government while the other half remain “under consideration” – including all of the recommendations regarding freedom of expression.

“The UPR process has highlighted challenges faced by Thailand in terms of freedom of expression.” said Yap Swee Seng, Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-Asia), at an event held by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) with the Thai Netzien and iLaw earlier this week.

He added that it was important for civil society to continue engagement in the process and hold the Thai government accountable to recommendations they have already adopted and to encourage them to adopt the recommendations still under consideration.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, Frank La Rue has also become increasingly concerned over the state of Freedom of Expression in Thailand. In June 2011, La Rue presented his Special Report focusing on internet freedom in which he raised concern over the Thai government’s actions and policies which have “lead to a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

Since becoming Special Rapporteur, La Rue has been to Thailand twice on unofficial visits. At the event on 12 October, Yap encouraged civil society to advocate for an official visit from the Special Rapporteur as he would be “able to provide valuable advice and assistance to the Thai government.”

In light of the recent increase in lese majeste cases, La Rue issued a statement on Monday calling on the Thai government to amend the lese majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act. He called the laws vague and overly broad and that they might potentially be in violation of international human rights treaties.

The Thai Foreign Ministry responded to Mr. La Rue’s statement, admitting that the laws may not have always been properly applied. The Ministry said, “In recent years, there have been cases where the law has been enforced in such a way that may not be line with its purpose of protecting the dignity of the monarchy and may in some cases inadvertently affect people people’s freedom of expression.”

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About SEAPA

SEAPA (http://www.seapabkk.org/) is the only regional organization with the  specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). SEAPA also has partners in Cambodia, East Timor, and exiled Burmese media, and undertakes projects and programs for press freedom throughout the region.

For inquiries, please contact us at: seapa [at] seapa [dot] org or call +662 243 5579.