Thai police target websites critical of royals

by Marwaan Macan-Markar, Inter Press Service

BANGKOK - As if the country’s draconian lese-majeste laws are not harsh enough, Thailand’s thought police have another weapon, the computer crimes law, to curtail the space for free expression.

Friday saw a new low in this South-east Asian country when the police raided the Bangkok office of ‘Prachatai’, a popular alternative news website, to arrest its editor, Chiranuch Premchaiporn.

She was charged with violating article 15 of this law, which came into force in 2007, when the country was under the grip of a junta that had come to power after the September 2006 army coup.

Under that article, website moderators like Chiranuch face the threat of arrest if their websites have messages posted on them that are deemed to ‘’undermine national security’’ and are not removed immediately. Comments that tarnish the image of the country’s monarchy, an act of lese-majeste, are considered in similar light.

What triggered the arrest was a comment posted on the ‘Prachatai’ message board on Oct. 15 last year. The police accused the website of leaving that comment on its web board for 20 days. It was viewed as having a reference to the royal family.

‘’It was a long post (in Thai) with metaphors. The message was unclear if it was violating the lese-majeste law or not,’’ the 42-year-old Chiranuch, who was released on bail, told IPS.

‘’I was shocked when I learnt about the arrest warrant. I didn’t expect this,’’ revealed the editor of the website that was launched in 2004 to provide news and commentary that the mainstream print and broadcast media avoid.

‘’Her arrest has created tension in the Internet community in Thailand,’’ says Supinya Klangnarong, a media rights campaigner who heads the Thai Netizens Network, a group lobbying for the rights of Internet users. ‘’If Thai society cannot accept the free nature of Internet, we have a big problem.’’

‘’It is too much to raid the office and to force her to go to the police,’’ Supinya added during an IPS interview. ‘’We don’t want to see people put into jail for using the Internet.’’

The arrest of Chiranuch, who could be jailed for five years if found guilty, points to an ominous trend. Four other Thais have been charged for committing a cyber crime before her. ‘’They were all individual Internet users; Chiranuch is the first moderator of an on-line news website to be charged,’’ says Supinya.

That is not all. The country’s information and communications ministry has confirmed that 2,300 websites have been blocked for comments that tarnish the image of the Thai royals and 400 more are on a possible ban list.

The justice ministry has revealed that over 10,000 websites are being monitored for any offensive comments that defame the monarchy. And the authorities have also reportedly invested 1.28 million US dollars to establish an Internet firewall to block websites that have anti-monarchy comments

‘’The government has set up a ‘war room’ to coordinate this effort. They are not only monitoring websites but are investigating people who post offensive comments in order to track them down,’’ said a source familiar with this operation set up to give more teeth to the cyber crime law.

Little wonder why the climate of fear and censorship that is spreading across the country has triggered a strong response from some quarters. On Mar. 4, over 50 international scholars launched a campaign calling for the end to the ‘’abuse of the lese-majeste law’’, since it ‘’has led to the deterioration of basic civil liberties.’’

‘’Please stop seeking more suppressive measures against individuals, web sites and the peaceful expression of ideas,’’ wrote the scholars in a letter addressed to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. ‘’Bring charges against journalists, academics and other citizens for their views and actions simply because of allegations that they are offensive to the royal family prevents open discussion of important public issues.’’

‘’The lese-majeste law has been irresponsibly interpreted and abused,’’ said Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai academic based in the United Sates who is spearheading the campaign, during a press conference done via the Internet. ‘’Thai authorities believe that total suppression is the answer.’’

The scholars who have lent their name to the campaign come from Australia, Britain, Hong Kong, India, Italy, The Netherlands, and the United States. They included world renowned figures like Noam Chomsky and respected Thai specialists such as Charles Keyes.

Till the arrival of the computer crimes law to protect the image of the monarchy, the 100-year-old lese-majeste law served the purpose. Those found guilty of insulting or defaming the Thai monarchy through words or actions face a maximum jail term of 15 years.

Since the September 2006 coup, the country has seen an increase in lese-majeste charges being filed. Those who have been on the receiving end have been a leading Buddhist philosopher, a former government spokesman, a BBC correspondent and two female political activists.

In February, another victim of lese-majeste laws, Giles Ungpakorn, fled the country for a life of exile in Britain. Giles, who was a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, was accused of defaming the monarchy in a book that he wrote following the 2006 coup, Thailand’s 18th putsch.

This form of censorship that places Thailand in a unique league has not been lost on international media rights watchdogs. ‘’Thai authorities continued to crack down on any perceived slight to the royal family, particularly to 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej,’’ states the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its annual worldwide survey, ‘Attacks on the Press in 2008’.

‘’Thailand maintains some of the world’s strictest lese-majeste laws,’’ the New York-based CPJ revealed. ‘’Thai police also launched investigations into Web sites that included content authorities considered potentially offensive to the monarchy.’’

article originally published at http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46023.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey