Censoring free speech in Thailand
Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)
Thailand’s military junta’s fifth order following its coup d’etat September 19, 2006 was to appoint an Official Censor of the Military Coup. The overthrown elected government had publicly stated that it intended to block 800,000 websites.
Thailand’s Official Censor never got that far but he did manage to block 17,793 sites before a general election. In addition the Royal Thai Police claim to block a further 32,500. The junta obviously considered the Internet a dangerous place as its ICT Ministry introduced a Computer-Related Crimes Act to the military-appointed parliament as its first law.
The first draft of this cybercrime law included the death penalty, though, on final passage, the strictures were reduced to “only” 20 years for some computer crimes.
Censorship in Thailand has always been accomplished by government in secret. The number of websites blocked, its blocklists and the methods it uses to block have never been disclosed to the Thai public which pays for it.
However, the new cybercrime law required that the government seek a court order before blocking. However, since passage of the law, Web censorship has become far murkier, with Thailand’s 100 ISPs blocking blocking independently in order to avoid being criminalised under the law for illegal content transiting their servers and no court orders have been requested.
Now ISPs are required to keep all Internet traffic logs for 90 days. Two cyberdissidents have already been arrested under the new law tracked by their IP addresses for comments they made on Thailand’s monarchy to public Web discussion boards.
Most famously, Thailand’s official censor blocked YouTube for seven months in 2007 for sophomoric anti-monarchy videos posted to the site. The ICT Ministry blocked not only YouTube’s domain but 75 separate YouTube URLs before securing Google’s cooperation, in secret, to implement geolocational blocking at Thai government’s recommendation.
The difference between Internet censorship in Thailand and that in the Middle East, Myanmar and China is that Thailand is famously a Constitutional monarchy. We claim to be a democracy but operate government-in-secret, above the law.
Make no mistake: Internet censorship is illegal in Thailand under at least 11 articles of the 1997 Constitution, by decree of the lawmakers’ Council of State and by order of the Administrative Court. Has this stopped the censors? Didn’t even slow them now.
The 2007 YouTube block, hundreds of links to an unauthorised biography of King Bhumipol (The King Never Smiles, published by Yale University Press), anticoup Websites, sites in support of our deposed prime minister and voices from Thailand’s restive Southern provinces under the military junta were merely a harbinger of censorship to follow.
Now Thailand’s newly-elected government and its new ICT Minister are using lèse majesté as its ongoing excuse to block freedom of opinion and expression by Thais on issues vital to our society.
The past few weeks have seen YouTube blocked again as well as Prachatai , Thailand’s foremost independent news portal and Same Sky , a journal of social criticism. Both sites have popular public Web discussion boards. In the past, both sites have been warned by MICT to self-censor “sensitive” public comments.
However, both were closed this week without court order by the ICT Minister who was interviewed on May 14 on the Khao Den Praden Ron radio news programme. His comments reveal that, not only was he completely aware he was acting above the law, but that suggestion for the censorship came from those higher up in Thai government.
Quoting the Minister: “[Pursuing legal action] will…become a big scandal. We’d better suppress the news. Someone higher than me is of this opinion”. This means, of course, that the rose-apple is rotten to its core and that Thai bureaucrats engage in criminal acts with impunity.
Recently, the lèse majesté issue has been in the forefront of public discussion due to the arrests of Chotisak Onsoong and Chutima Penpak on several lèse majesté charges which could result in a minimum of 15 years in prison. They had refused to stand in respect for the Royal anthem at a cinema.
But Chotisak and Chutima are the tip of the iceberg; scores of lèse majesté hang over many from respected academics to our former prime minister to serving government ministers to a BBC reporter. Any person is free to charge another with lèse majesté and these laws have historically been used as a tool for tarnishing political rivals.
We must make very clear that, juvenile YouTube videos notwithstanding, Thailand’s King Bhumibol is not behind any lèse majesté charges. The King has publicly invited criticism and has a long tradition of pardoning those sentenced for lèse majesté.
This vendetta against Thai people is being conducted by Thai bureaucrats as an excuse for repression of free speech and to create a climate of fear in which all of us will be afraid to voice any opinions. They are presuming to speak for the King which is a primary definition of lèse majesté.
Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) has petitioned the National Human Rights Commission on November 15, 2006 and Thailand’s freedom of information body, the Official Information Commission, on March 23, 2007, over Internet censorship, both to no definitive result.
FACT has also made available a CD of circumvention tools “Beat the Censors – Unblock ICT!” for download. Using such tools makes Internet censorship obsolete.
FACT’s petition (here and here) and against all censorship is still active and I urge all readers to sign it in our support. Without your help, we will never have free speech.
The canary in the coal mine and the dove of peace are both dying in Thailand. Censorship is the barometer of freedom and it is being used wholesale to bludgeon the public into submission.