Stop suffocating internet freedom

To promote democracy, the Thai government must allow more political expression online, says a former senator

Bangkok Post
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

By Jon Ungphakorn

Since the military coup of Sept 19, 2006, Thailand has almost caught up with China as a world leader in the field of internet censorship and control, particularly with regard to freedom of political expression. This is a completely unacceptable environment for the promised return to democracy at the end of this year.

On the day after the coup, the Council for Democratic Reform that took over the country ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) to “control, intercept, suppress and eliminate the distribution over all information networks of articles, text, speech and other forms of communication that might adversely affect administrative reform of the democratic system under the constitutional monarchy”.

This order has never been rescinded.

According to Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT), by May 28 of this year, the MICT was blocking access by the Thai public to a total of 11,329 websites. These could be categorised as pornographic sites, gaming sites, anti-coup sites, websites supporting Thaksin Shinawatra and the Thai Rak Thai party, political discussion web-boards, websites containing anti-monarchy content (such as YouTube), and websites which could assist users to bypass the cyber blockade.

A more sinister and permanent form of internet content control was established in mid-July when the Computer Crimes Act, passed by the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly, came into effect.

This has created a threatening environment to internet contributors in which freedom of political expression is no longer safeguarded.

Article 14 of this act makes it a crime punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 100,000 baht for anyone to import into a computer system, or to forward or propagate:

1) False information or forged data likely to cause damage to others, or to the general public;

2) False information likely to damage national security or cause undue public alarm;

3) Any information contravening national security or anti-terrorism laws;

4) Obscene materials which are publicly accessible.

Internet service operators who knowingly allow such crimes to take place on computer systems under their control are also liable to the same punishment.

Such vaguely defined and all-encompassing grounds for criminal charges will surely encourage discriminatory use of the law by those in power to punish political opponents and dissidents.

Website hosts will obviously be reluctant to allow controversial political views on any websites connected to them.

Already, two people were separately arrested in August on charges of contravening the Computer Crimes Act. Both were advised not to speak to the media.

One of them, a lone woman blogger from a low-income family was held without bail for nearly a month until her case came to the attention of media freedom activists, after I was approached for help by her parents.

Then her bail was suddenly paid for by a mysterious government official.

Shockingly, neither case attracted the attention of the mainstream media. It was mainly on internet sites and in email circles that the news of their arrests became known.

The fact is that in Thailand today, political expression on the internet is more subject to censorship and control, and carries a greater risk of criminal penalties than similar expression on mainstream media such as the printed press.

This is outrageous, considering that the internet is the most accessible public media open to all ordinary citizens to communicate and interact, and to make social, political and cultural contributions to the development of their society.

It is the media for democratic public participation in the affairs of the country. To restrict internet freedom is to restrict the very essence of democracy. That is why all democratic societies abstain from internet censorship. It is why censorship and control of internet content in Thailand is unacceptable.

Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development.

Date Posted: 10/3/2007

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