(New York) – A criminal court in Thailand sentenced a man to three years in prison for selling satirical calendars that authorities allege defamed the monarchy, further chilling free speech in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Thai authorities should quash the sentence and promptly release Narathorn Chotmankongsin, 26, who was convicted on March 7, 2023 after a six-day trial. “The prosecution and three-year sentence of a man for selling satirical calendars shows that Thai authorities are now trying to punish any activity they deem to be insulting the monarchy,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This case sends a message to all Thais, and to the rest of the world, that Thailand is moving further away from – not closer to – becoming a rights-respecting democracy.” On December 31, 2020, Bangkok police arrested Narathorn at his home and confiscated calendars that featured cartoons of a yellow duck. Officials said the images and descriptions ridiculed and defamed Thailand’s King Rama 10, and charged Narathorn with committing lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for selling the calendars via the pro-democracy Ratsadon Facebook page. Thailand’s pro-democracy and political reform groups have widely used inflatable yellow ducks to symbolize their political cause, which includes reforming the monarchy as a fundamental step toward a democratic transition. Narathorn was convicted under article 112 of the Thai criminal code, which states that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” The number of lese majeste cases in Thailand has significantly increased in the past years. In November 2020, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha ordered officials to use the draconian law to suppress criticism of the monarchy, ostensibly in response to the rise of public anti-monarchy sentiments. Since then, Thai authorities have charged more than 200 people with lese majeste crimes in relation to their participation in pro-democracy rallies, comments made on social media, and expressed opinions about the monarchy in other venues. Officials have also used the Computer-Related Crime Act to prosecute people who have posted critical comments about the monarchy online.
They have also charged some people with sedition under the criminal code article 116. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Laws that impose criminal penalties for peaceful expression are of particular concern because of the chilling effects they have on free speech.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has stated in its General Comment No. 34 on freedom of expression that: [T]he mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.... Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition. Accordingly, the Committee expresses concern regarding laws on such matters as ... disrespect for authority ... and the protection of the honour of public officials. [Governments] should not prohibit criticism of institutions.
The committee added that that governments should not prohibit criticism of public figures and institutions, and that laws such as those for lese majeste “should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned.” “Thai authorities should permit peaceful expression of all viewpoints, including those related to the monarchy,” Pearson said. “The government should urgently engage with United Nations experts and others about embarking on a process of amending the lese majeste law to bring it into compliance with Thailand’s international human rights obligations.”.
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