Danai Ussama, better known by his artist name “Mr Zen” and as owner and founder of the Wua Art Gallery on Phang Nga Rd in Phuket Town, was arrested at his home in Phuket on Monday (Mar 23).
Although still under self-quarantine, officers flew Mr Danai to Bangkok, where he was taken to the Crime Suppression Division headquarters and charged with violating section 14(2) of the Computer-Related Crime Act for “putting into a computer system false computer data in a manner that is likely to cause panic in the public.”
If found guilty, he faces up to five years in prison and a fine up to B100,000.
The charge is based on a complaint that Airports of Thailand PCL (AoT), which operates six international airports in the country, including Suvarnbhumi and Phuket International Airport.
The complaint was based on a Mar 16 post on the “Zen Wide” Facebook account where Mr Danai wrote that upon return from Barcelona, he and other passengers on his flight did not encounter any COVID-19 screening at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
AoT alleged his post is not factual and caused public panic, and misled people into thinking that Suvarnabhumi Airport had failed to effectively employ COVID-19 screening.
Human Rights Watch has blasted the arrest.
“Thai authorities should immediately stop using ‘anti-fake news’ laws to prosecute people critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the New York-based human rights organisation in a release issued today (Mar 26).
The state of emergency, which came into effect today, heightens concerns of greater repression of free speech, the statement noted.
“Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech.”
In is report “Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Response,” Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that Thailand was clamping down on free speech amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists have faced retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation from authorities after they criticised government response to the outbreak and reported alleged corruption related to hoarding of surgical masks and other supplies and black-market profiteering, the report noted.
“Thai authorities also threatened some medical staff with disciplinary action, including termination of employment contracts and revocation of their licenses, for speaking out about the severe shortage of essential supplies in hospitals across the country,” the rights group said.
Concerns about government restrictions on free speech significantly increased when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency on Tuesday (Mar 24).
During a news conference, he said, “After a state of emergency is announced everyone must be careful about social media misinformation… the media and all of those who use social media to distort information will be scrutinised.”
“Reporting or spreading of information regarding COVID-19 which is untrue and may cause public fear, as well as deliberate distortion of information which causes misunderstanding and hence affects peace and order, or good moral of people, are prohibited. In that case, officials will suspend or edit such piece of news. If the case lead to severe impacts, the Computer-Related Crime Act or Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation will be enforced for prosecution,” he said.
“Access to information and freedom of expression are among the integral components of the right to health, especially in the context of a global pandemic. Access to information includes the right to seek, receive, and share information, which is especially relevant in the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure that everyone is informed about the disease as well as the government’s response, Human Rights Watch said in its statement issued today.