BANGKOK - Rights groups and opposition parties in Thailand are warning that a new center authorities plan to open by next month to combat the spread of fake news online may be misused to target and silence government critics.
Thailand emerged from five years of military rule after tainted elections in March that returned the leaders of a 2014 coup to power. The junta sued or arrested hundreds for peacefully protesting its rule and criticizing the military, often online.
Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta announced the center's pending arrival in August, adding Thailand to the list of countries in the region fortifying their fronts against online fake news.
The state-run National News Bureau of Thailand later reported that the center would open by November 1 to vet dubious news found online and respond to any falsehoods jeopardizing peace and security with the facts via Facebook, the messaging application Line, and a dedicated website. It said the center would focus on natural disasters, the economy and finance, health products and hazards, and government policy.
However, opposition parties and rights groups say the track record of the junta and the government that has replaced it, led by the pro-military Palang Pracharath party, provide reason to worry.
"There are serious concerns that the proposed fake news center of the government will be yet another tool for censorship, because up until now all of the anti-fake news operation of Thai authorities focus exclusively on comments of critics and dissidents ... while taking no action at all against misinformation and hate campaign from sources known to be connected to the military and Palang Pracharath party," said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand.
Buddhipongse's staff told VOA that no one was available to comment for this story.
Another common concern among critics is that the center will combine the government's alleged bias with the power to sue and arrest.
The digital economy minister "has made it clear that the center will work as an interagency coordinating point and [be] authorized to prosecute people with various laws," Sunai said. "So all this combined together are very draconian censorship tools that [the] Thai government has been using over the past five years under military rule. Now those rules have been consolidated into one center."
Arthit Suriyawongkul, co-founder of the Thai Netizen Network, which advocates for online freedom, shared his worry.
"I still hope that they would do the right job. We would love to be positive about this, because in the end ... we do think that fake news and disinformation in general, actually they do some harm," he said, referring in particular of the spread of products speciously claimed to have medicinal value.
Arthit said, however, that authorities have too often applied the "fake news" label to what is really just critical opinion.
"We found that the effort, most of the time, is actually targeted [at] those [who are] anti-government or dissidents in general. And sometimes it's not actually quite clear if [the] information is actually true or false," he said.
"So I think they just use the term [for] their convenience, as an excuse to clamp down [on] expression."
Thailand is not alone.
Lasse Schuldt, a lecturer with the law faculty at Thailand's Thammasat University, said Southeast Asia has become something of a "world's laboratory" for so-called fake news laws.
While Malaysia and Singapore have attracted the most attention for recent legislation taking the issue head-on, he said other countries in the region have their own laws covering fake news. In Thailand, the Computer Crimes Act specifically criminalizes the publication or sharing of false information online.
When Thailand's anti-fake news center is finally up and running, Schuldt said it will be in the company of similarly dedicated operations in Vietnam and Indonesia.
The academic said a multilayered combination of developments was driving the trend, from the viral talk of "fake news" during the 2016 U.S. election to countries in Southeast Asia adopting and adapting the language for their own purposes.
"Local realities influence the discourse as well," he said. "Singapore points in particular to its perceived vulnerability and the prevention of foreign influence. Protracted political division is the background in Thailand. And Vietnam is mostly concerned about the protection of the [Communist] Party and the state."
The spread of fake news via social media has been blamed for sparking deadly clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar and for stoking racial and religious tensions ahead of national elections in Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, earlier this year.