GENEVA (26 July 2016) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, today condemned the alarmingly high number of arrests and charges over public and social media expression brought under military orders and the Constitutional Referendum Act in Thailand. The Act, adopted ahead of the constitutional referendum scheduled for 7 August, criminalises expression and access to information about the draft constitution.

Since June this year, it is reported that at least 86 people have been investigated or charged under the government clampdown on dissenting voices ahead of the 7 August vote. Earlier this month, several activists were charged under the Constitutional Referendum Act for a campaign urging voters to reject the draft constitution. A journalist covering the campaign was also arrested and charged with violating the Act. Violation of the Act carries a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment, heavy fines and the loss of voting rights for 10 years   

“I am seriously concerned that military orders and the Constitutional Referendum Act restrict expression and access to information about the draft constitution,” Mr. Kaye said. “The idea of a referendum is to allow for full debate followed by public vote, and particularly where the subject is of extraordinary public interest, a wide range of opinions should be encouraged, freely expressed, and open to rigorous debate.”

“Instead of criminalizing expression on the draft constitution, the Thai government should encourage an open environment for public discourse to ensure an informed participation during the constitutional referendum”, the expert advised.

Article 61 of the 2016 Referendum Act, which governs the referendum process, criminalizes ‘anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth or in a violent, aggressive, rude, inciting or threatening manner aimed at preventing a voter from casting a ballot or vote in any direction or to not vote’.

“Everyone must have the right to hold opinions without interference,” said the UN Special Rapporteur, while urging the Thai Government to halt the enforcement of the Constitutional Referendum Act, to drop all charges under the Act and related military orders, and to uphold its international obligation to safeguard the broad and expansive right to freedom of expression guaranteed to everyone under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Mr. Kaye’s call has been endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai; the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst; and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

UN Expert urges Thailand to ensure free debate ahead of the constitutional referendum