By KASAMAKORN CHANWANPEN,
IN A UNANIMOUS 9-0 vote, the Constitutional Court ruled yesterday that the second paragraph of the referendum law’s Article 61 is not in conflict with the post-coup interim charter, and hence is constitutional.
This ruling, in effect, gives the green light for the August 7 referendum on the draft charter to go ahead uninterrupted.
The clause in question “is not in conflict with Article 4 of the 2014 provisional constitution and therefore there is no problem of constitutionality”, a statement from the court said. No further elaboration was provided.
The controversial clause prohibits the spread of false, rude, inciting or intimidating messages concerning the draft constitution or the referendum and violators face a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of Bt200,000.
Yesterday’s ruling came after the Ombudsman’s Office asked the court to look into the clause’s legality after it received a petition last month that the clause might violate the rights and freedom of expression that are protected by the supreme law.
After the court accepted the case, there were concerns that the referendum may be delayed, though the authorities insisted that it would not.
The Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw), led by former senator Jon Ungpakorn, had filed a petition with the Ombudsman’s Office, alleging that the second clause of the Referendum Act’s Article 61 was unconstitutional and breached Article 4 of the interim charter.
Jon’s group issued a statement explaining that the petition had been lodged to ensure that the rights and freedom of speech of all Thai citizens are safeguarded.
However, Jon said yesterday that he was disappointed by the verdict, and maintained that the clause in question was clearly against the universal convention on citizens’ rights and liberties.
“We hope the referendum will be acceptable to the people and the international community, but this verdict may affect the referendum’s credibility,” he said.
He added that his group would call on the Election Commission (EC) to amend its regulations regarding the referendum in order to allow both supporters and detractors of the draft constitution to campaign freely.
iLaw stands firm
Meanwhile, an iLaw representative told The Nation yesterday that the group was standing firm in its stance that the clause is unconstitutional as it clearly violates the rights and freedom of expression.
However, he admitted that the group could do little to change the verdict, but it would continue promoting the rights and freedom of the people as much as it could through normal legal means.
In response to the court ruling, EC member Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, said the commission would strictly enforce the law, adding that the editor Matichon Weekender and a cartoonist would be summoned today to explain their editorial cartoon. The illustration was deemed to have caused a misunderstanding about the referendum.
Separately, Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) spokesman Udom Rathamarit said yesterday that he was not worried that detractors of the draft charter would use the court verdict to criticise the draft.
Article 61 has stirred up considerable controversy since the Referendum Law came into effect late April. Some critics, like iLaw, have said that it violates the freedom of expression essential during the lead up to the referendum.
They said that people should be able to speak freely of the draft charter and the referendum, regardless of what stance they take. Otherwise, the poll would not be free and fair when only the junta-backed CDC and a handful of agencies are allowed to promote the charter and the plebiscite.
Some also say that the clause is an instrument for the regime to suppress its opponents who are likely to vote against this junta-sponsored constitution.