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THAILAND: Three Years On, Cyber Crime Law Stifling Debate – Critics

BANGKOK, Jul 22 2010 (IPS) - Many netizens worldwide have long realised that the Internet is not completely without fetters, but those in Thailand say a three-year-old law is now practically choking Thai self-expression and right to information in cyberspace.

More to the point, Thai netizens, journalists and media advocates say that the country’s authorities have taken advantage of ambiguities in the Cyber Crime Act (CCA) to censor or close down altogether websites or forums that the government deems “offensive”.

“The problem with the cyber crime law is its lack of clarity, which leaves it wide open to misinterpretation,” Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the yet-to-be-unblocked independent news website Prachatai (‘Free People’), told a discussion here this week to review and propose amendments to the law.

Already, reports of prosecution under the computer crime law have driven much political discussion underground. Others worry this is discouraging people from debating key issues in the public sphere, especially amid the political divisions in Thailand that led to the largest protests in decades by the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and the military’s subsequent crackdown in May.

Already, “the authorities’ actions are driving the growth of underground forums and space,” adds Chiranuch.

The actions of Thailand’s online censors “will cause people to drop off from the discussion of issues”, agrees South-east Asia Press Alliance Executive Director Roby Alampay. “Only the truly determined and technologically savvy will continue to find ways to express their voices online,” he adds.


Critics say that the government has been on an intensive cybercrackdown in the last two years. The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says that in July 2009 alone, the information and communications technology (ICT) ministry, citing threats to national security, blocked more than 16,944 websites.

Internet freedom activists say that as of this year, the number has reached more than 50,000, adding that it is difficult to get a clear figure of exactly how many websites have been blocked.

Likewise, “it is difficult to say how many have been charged under the CCA.” said independent media lawyer Sinfah Tunsarawuth. “There are at least 10, but we don’t know if there are more as defendants don’t want to talk and would rather settle out of court. It’s also difficult to track down individual court cases.”

Thailand, a country of 68 million people, has 13.4 million Internet users, with 113 Internet service providers (ISPs) licensed as of July 2009.

Netizens say the CCA has enabled authorities to step up the online clampdown. Other regulations in place that affect the online community and media include the emergency decree that the government imposed in April and remains in effect in Bangkok and several provinces, and which allows it to shut websites deemed to detrimental to security.

Among the websites that have been blocked since April is Prachatai. Even before that, Chiranuch herself was charged with violating Section 15 of the computer crime act for postings made on Prachatai’s web board that were allegedly in breach of the lese majeste law.

CCA critics also cite the law’s Section 14 as being problematic. It covers offences such as the uploading of material deemed “likely to” threaten any person as well as national security or sow panic among the public, Sinfah’s report says.

“If anyone is seen as ‘likely to’ harm national security, it doesn’t have to happen but that person is already liable,” he told IPS recently. Against the backdrop of legal restrictions on expression, Thai Netizen Network committee member Sarinee Achavanuntakul says that there is a need to distinguish between threats to national security and the expression of opinion. “We should be able to define what constitutes dangerous content,” she says.

But one hindrance to this, says Thai Journalists Association president Prasong Lertratanawisut, is that implementing bodies such as the ICT can easily be “led by political agendas”.

Political analyst Suranan Vejjajiva adds that the Thai authorities’ notion of control is through the use of propaganda. “The bureaucratic system has so many laws, rules and regulations that give universal power to the person holding office,” he also says. “They think that control or shutting down websites, for instance, gives more security but, in fact, reflects insecurity.”

TNN’s Sarinee believes as well that the government does not really understand the nature of the Internet and that, unlike the more traditional forms of media, it simply is impossible to censor it.

At the same time, she worries that “unless you make it a very personal thing” and show people how censorship affects their own lives, they would not to care to react to the government’s current sweep through the Web.

Prachatai, however, seems to be waving a white flag, and is closing down its controversial web board end of July. Chiranuch, who says past comments on the board have led to the arrest of several people, explains, “We don’t want to mislead users that we can protect them online.”

“We’d rather shut down the web board than collect our users’ personal data,” she also says, referring to a provision in the law that directs Internet providers to collect and store online users’ personal information for 90 days.

Comments Suranan: “Sharing is the heart of the new Internet culture where everybody is a stakeholder. Unfortunately, the government and other organisations can’t seem to come to grips with this and are refusing to understand that the world has changed.”

*The Asia Media Forum (http://www.theasiamediaforum.org) is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

 
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