(New York, NY) – The arrest of Thai artist Danai Ussama for Facebook posts related to the COVID-19 outbreak is an indefensible violation of freedom of expression and poses a significant threat to the spread of truthful health-related information during the pandemic, PEN America said today. 

Officers from Thailand’s Technology Crime Suppression Division arrested Ussama at his art gallery in Phuket on Monday after Ussama reportedly claimed on Facebook that no screening for COVID-19 was being conducted at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Affairs asserted that “the post created panic for the public and eroded their confidence in Suvarnabhumi Airport.” Ussama was charged with violating Thailand’s draconian Computer Crime Act and faces up to five years in prison. Although Ussama was in the middle of a self-quarantine, Thai police reportedly flew him from Phuket to Bangkok for his arraignment. He was released on bail the day following his arrest, and is set to appear in court May 12.

“The arrest of Danai Ussama sets an alarming precedent for the muzzling of speech in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Julie Trébault, director of the Artist at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Laws like the Computer Crime Act are particularly dangerous in times like these, as they embolden authorities to crack down on civil liberties and freedom of expression in the name of health and national security. It is an outrageous abuse for authorities to charge Ussama a crime for essentially reporting his personal experience at the airport. Such criminal charges not only chill speech, but will deter  others from sharing potentially crucial information during times of crisis.”

The Computer Crime Act, adopted in 2007 and amended in 2017, provides an ambiguous framework for determining what constitutes “false” or “distorted” information, and has allowed the Thai government to widely crack down on dissent by restricting online speech and punishing violators with up to five years in prison. In the first year following its enactment alone, there were at least 399 prosecutions under the act. 

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection, a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.