Thai journalist accused of sedition says charge creates 'chilling effect'

BANGKOK (Reuters) - An award-winning Thai journalist accused of sedition over online comments critical of the junta said on Friday that the charge created a “chilling effect” amid an ongoing crackdown on critics of the military government.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist at local news outlet Khaosod English, has been a rare voice of dissent against the junta since it took power in a May 2014 coup, ousting then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The military government has largely silenced critics by summoning them for “attitude adjustment” sessions in military camps, banning public gatherings and detaining dissenters.

But government spokesman Weerachon Sukhontapatipak said criticism had not been outlawed.

“It depends on the intention and the delivery... But if it violates existing laws, it must be dealt with accordingly,” Weerachon told Reuters.

Pravit, an avid social media user, has been summoned twice for attitude adjustment sessions.

He was accused on Monday of sedition and cyber crime over five Facebook posts in which he criticized the junta, police said.

He denies the accusations, saying his criticism was in good faith and the charges against him were aimed at intensifying a climate of fear on the internet.

“This creates a chilling effect, because the junta is afraid of social media platforms. The online space is a new frontier where criticism is hard for them to control,” Pravit told Reuters.

Pravit will hear the charges against him on Tuesday.

Sedition charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison for each offence. According to the criminal code, punishment will be capped at 20 years for charges with multiple offences.

The accusations came as Thailand’s military government seeks to strengthen its online monitoring.

It has also asked Facebook to remove offensive content and threatened the opposition with cyber crime charges.

Rights group Amnesty International said the accusations against Pravit suggested there was “no end to the Thai authorities’ determination to stamp out any form of criticism, whether online or on the streets”.

Last month, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Pravit was a recipient of its 2017 International Press Freedom Award.

Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Nick Macfie