More worrying signs for media freedom in Thailand.

Taweesak Kerdpoka, a journalist from Prachatai, has been falsely indicted by a Thai court on the offence of distributing materials campaigning against the junta-sponsored draft constitution.

Taweesak was charged on the morning of Monday, 29 August at the Provincial Court of Ratchaburi Province along with four New Democracy Movement (NDM) activists: Pakorn Areekul, Anucha Rungmorakot, Anan Loked and Phanuwat Songsawadchai.

The five were charged under Article 61 of the controversial Referendum Act, which criminalises the dissemination of false information about the draft constitution voted on by referendum on 7 August. Those charged under Article 61 face a prison term of up to 10 years, a fine of up to 200,000 baht and a loss of electoral rights for five years.

On 10 July, Taweesak had been present at Ban Pong Police Station in Ratchaburito report on the indictment of 18 locals for their participation in a gathering deemed illegal under the junta’s ban on public assemblies. Three NDM activists had travelled to the police station to offer moral support to the indicated 18.

But Taweesak and the NDM activists were detained by police from the Ban Pong Police Station in Ratchaburi after authorities searched the activists’ car and found copies of an NDM booklet containing writing critical of the draft constitution. At no point were materials distributed.

The indictment of Taweesak lays a worrying precedent for media freedom, whereby normal journalistic activity may incur criminal punishment. Taweesak acted in Rachaburi in the role of a reporter; nor did the NDM materials belong to him.

As a statement released by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand points out, ‘It is not unusual for journalists to accompany or travel with newsmakers and interviewees. As a reporter covering human and environmental rights, Mr Taweesak was merely doing his job.’

The Referendum Act’s ambiguous prohibition of material both ‘inconsistent with the truth’ or ‘violent, aggressive, rude, inciting or threatening’ has already facilitated an escalating crackdown on opinions viewed by the junta as dissenting. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights have reported 195 cases of prosecution in draft constitution related offences as of August 2016.

On 12 July, police searched the Prachatai offices under a warrant for anti-constitution materials. Nothing was found.

The provincial court has scheduled Taweesak’s conciliation proceeding for 21 September and his deposition heading for 17 October. He was granted bail at 140,000 baht.

Editor’s note: New Mandala condemns arbitrary charges by Thailand’s ruling military junta against members of the media, the curtailing of media freedom, and the escalating crackdowns on political expression and free speech in the country.