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The cabinet has approved confidentiality guidelines preventing unauthorised disclosure of information about cabinet meeting discussions to the media. The guidelines allows for government agencies to take disciplinary action against civil servants and press charges against anyone who damages national security by disclosing such information.

Several media outlets reported yesterday (21 September) that the cabinet has approved guidelines prohibiting the disclosure of official secrets from cabinet meetings to the media. The resolution was not listed in a cabinet meeting summary published on the government’s website, but appeared instead in the Secretariat of the Cabinet’s resolution database.

The guidelines, which were proposed by the Secretariat of the Cabinet, state that any classified documents related to cabinet meetings must be kept confidential and only disclosed with the approval of the secretary-general or deputy secretary-general of the cabinet.  The content of cabinet meeting discussions are also to be considered official secrets which cannot be disclosed.

The guidelines allow any agency introducing an issue to the cabinet to indicate that the matter should be kept confidential out of concern that it might have a severe impact on international relations, national security, and national interests. If the Secretariat agrees, it will be removed from the cabinet’s M-VARA public platform.

Under the guidelines, relevant agencies can seek legal actions against anyone who discloses information damaging governmental operations and national security. Any civil servant who does so could face disciplinary action, including dismissal, under the 2008 Civil Service Act.

When the cabinet passes a resolution on any public matter, information about the resolution can only be disclosed by the responsible agency. Other agency communications must by in accordance with it. The Office of the Prime Minister will take full responsibility for disclosing information about cabinet meetings, resolutions, or other works relating to the cabinet or ministers.  It will also issue clarifications of inaccurate, incorrect, or incomplete news reports “that might cause damage to the government and its personnel, and lead to wrong actions.”  In such cases, relevant ministries can also hold their own press conferences, issue clarifications, and join press conferences held by the Office of the Prime Minister.

The guidelines have been criticised as a censorship effort by Rangsiman Rome, activist-turned-MP from the Move Forward Party.  He said that civil servants who disclose information to the opposition know the risks but often do so anyhow. He noted that such whistleblowers want to see the country improve and, instead of standing by and watching corruption happen in the organisations they work for, they divulge information to the opposition or anti-corruption agencies.

Rangsiman expressed concern that the cabinet approved its new guidelines in a bid to prevent civil servants from revealing information about corruption and mismanagement.

“If this is the case, I am worried that this government’s management is unlikely to be transparent, fair, and without corruption. The public wants to hear assurances on this point as well,” Rangsiman said.

Rangsiman noted that in contrast to developed countries, which have laws to protect whistleblowers, Thailand’s ‘new and long-awaited government’ places emphasis on guarding information, not protecting people who divulge it, raising long-term concerns about possible corruption during its term.

Rangsiman added that the guidelines are unlikely to stop whistleblowers from coming forward. He noted that many civil servants are ready to fight for what is right and will continue to reveal information to the opposition to help keep the government in check.

Chai Wacharong, spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister, said that there was nothing unusual about the guidelines and that similar agreements on confidentiality and disclosing information to the media have been used by cabinets for the past 20 years. He explained that when issues under cabinet consideration are sensitive and likely to affect international relations or public perceptions, information cannot be disclosed, but that matters passed as resolutions and approved can be published “when appropriate.”

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