22 May 2024

Proposed amendments to the Official Information Act are aimed at protecting state secrets, contrary to the law’s original goal of securing the public’s right to access government data, critics warn. 

The draft amendments would prohibit the disclosure of any official information deemed potentially damaging to the monarchy or its security. They also cover information on military affairs and national security, among others.

The prohibitions are listed in an added chapter titled “Information Prohibited from Disclosure”.

The controversial bill also sets much harsher penalties for violators of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of Bt200,000, compared to the current maximum three months jail time and Bt5,000 fine.

Critics say the tougher punishment is likely to act as a deterrent against disclosure of official information, as officials opt to err on the side of safety.

Proposed by the Prime Minister’s Office, the bill gained Cabinet approval on March 24 and could be debated during the new parliamentary session, which started on May 22.

Calls for govt transparency

The Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT) on May 20 asked the government to review the draft amendment following widespread opposition and claims that it violated constitutional clauses requiring transparency of the state.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, ACT warned that preventing transparent disclosure of official information would undermine his government’s policy of fighting corruption.

ACT secretary-general Mana Nimitmongkol, who sits on the regulatory Official Information Board set up under the law, said state agencies and politicians often attempted to delay or limit disclosure when asked for official information like government budget spending.

“The current law is a serious obstacle. State agencies and politicians intentionally interpret the law and regulations in a way that benefits them,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Association of Journalism Students worries that the bill will restrict the mass media’s role to scrutinize the powers-that-be.

The group’s petition against the controversial bill has drawn more than 17,000 signatures at Change.org. The organizers plan to submit the list of signatures to the House of Representatives.

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Critics say the 2022 budget bill scheduled for debate in Parliament next week has several flaws, ranging from the size of total spending to how it is allocated. The 2022 fiscal year budget is worth Bt3.1 trillion, Bt185.9 billion less than the current 2021 budget.

More control feared

Already unhappy with the current law’s limits on access to official information, critics warn the amendments will restrict freedom of information for Thai citizens even further.

Law Professor Worachet Pakeerut of Thammasat University said he was “rather shocked” on reading the contents of the draft bill. “The state is going to control the flow of news and information more intensely,” said Prof Worachet, who sat on the regulatory Official Information Board for 16 years.

The academic voiced concern that the bill empowers the Cabinet to ban disclosure of information, overriding any order from the board which is supposed to operate independently as a check and balance.

Opposition MP Rangsiman Rome from the Move Forward Party said the amendment would further trample on Thai citizens’ right to transparency from their government, calling it a “retrograde” step.

“This law is supposed to guarantee people’s right to access official information. But that original spirit is being distorted and the law instead will be used to block information from reaching the citizens,” Rangsiman said recently.

“If promulgated, this law will be a big threat to the people. Taxpayers’ access to information will be restricted for the sake of military security, so it should not be allowed to go ahead,” he added.

Historic case

The right to state information was originally enshrined in the 1991 Constitution, but with the Official Information Act’s promulgation in 1997, Thailand became the first Southeast Asian country to implement a law on freedom of information.

The law was put to the test just a year later when the mother of a school student demanded to see the papers and scores of Kasetsart University Demonstration School’s 1998 entrance exam, complaining her daughter had been failed unjustly. After the prestigious school refused, she appealed to the Information Disclosure Tribunal, which ruled in her favor.

The papers showed that exam sitters with lower marks than her daughter had been admitted because of family connections. The case led to the reform of school admission procedures.

However, freedom of information has declined in the years since that historic case, according to Asst Prof Nakorn Serirak, a lecturer at Khon Kaen University’s College of Local Administration. Prof Nakorn said subsequent panels had functioned poorly, often siding with state agencies rather than citizens.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk