Blocking Cyber Dissidents Obstructs Return to Democracy
(New York) - Thailand’s military-backed government is undermining free political debate and delaying the return to democracy by barring access to many political websites, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the current government came to power after a September 2006 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai authorities have been active in silencing cyber critics and dissidents. This is in stark contradiction to Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont’s pledges to create an atmosphere conducive to democratization and political reform.
“A major complaint about Thaksin was his muzzling of the media and willingness to limit free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The military-backed government promised a quick return to democracy, but it’s now attacking freedom of expression and political pluralism in ways that Thaksin never dared.”
Censorship of the internet is now being carried out by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) and the Royal Thai Police, in collaboration with the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) and the Telecommunication Authority (TOT), which provide Thailand’s international internet gateways. Since the coup, the MICT has employed around-the-clock “watchers” to monitor content on the internet to find information considered to be offending the monarchy (a criminal offense in Thailand punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment), threatening national security, disrupting public order, or being obscene.
Based on this continuous surveillance, officials from the MICT and the Royal Thai Police have distributed names of websites, both domestic and foreign, to government and private internet service providers (ISPs), telling the ISPs to block access to blacklisted websites.
Many of the blocked websites were established in opposition to the September 19, 2006 coup and the subsequent role of the military in Thai politics. Websites blocked include the September 19 Network (www.19sep.net and www.19sep.org) and websites known to be supportive of Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party, such as the online telecast of PTV television (www.ptvthai.com), the online broadcast of Saturday Voice (www.saturdaylive.org and saturdayvoice.no-ip.info) and the online broadcast of FM 87.75 Taxi Community Radio (www.shinawatradio.com). Hosts of popular political blogs used among cyber critics and dissidents, such as BlogSpot (www.blogspot.com), have also been blocked by some ISPs.
Internet users attempting to access blocked websites encounter either an “Access Denied” message, are redirected to the MICT website, or receive a notice with the MICT’s logo saying that access to such websites has been blocked due to “inappropriate content” (w3.mict.go.th/ci/blocked.hrml).
The MICT has also blocked anonymous proxy servers through which Thai internet users can access a blocked webpage. The ministry has requested Google Thailand (www.google.co.th) and Google.com to block access to its cached web pages in Thailand by which blocked pages can be accessed, as well as to block by keyword search.
In addition, Thai authorities are monitoring critical opinions and debates on popular opinion boards of Prachathai (www.prachathai.com) and Pabtip.Com (www.pantip.com). They have issued warnings to both websites that they, too, would be shut down if they failed to remove opinions critical of the military junta.
“The military and government are clearly worried that Thaksin may return to power and are engaging in censorship to stop this,” said Adams. “But instead of resorting to draconian restrictions on free speech, the Thai authorities need to realize that their promised return to democracy requires opening the political process.”
The coup leaders, now known as the Council for National Security (CNS), made their intentions to control the internet known soon after the coup by issuing Order Number 5/2549, which authorized the MICT to shut down internet sites for posting inaccurate content and material deemed to be harming government reform efforts.
On September 29, 2006, access to a leading non-formal education center, the Midnight University website (www.midnightuniv.org) – which recorded more than half a million visitors per month from all over the world, thousands of articles and discussion boards – was temporarily blocked after its staff held a protest against the coup. Access to the Midnight University website was possible again only after its staff obtained a temporary restraining order from the Administrative Court ordering the MICT to unblock their website.
On November 15, 2006, the government introduced a draft law to criminalize the generation, possession, storage, dissemination of and access to prohibited information on the internet. The Bill on Computer-Related Offenses passed its first reading on the same date. On May 9, 2007, the legislation was quickly passed in the second and third readings by an overwhelming 119-1 vote by members of the National Legislative Assembly. The law provides broad powers to officials appointed by the MICT minister to intercept and seize computer data, and seek court warrants to block the dissemination of information on the internet if such information is considered as a threat to national security according to the Penal Code. The law carries harsh penalties for those found guilty of offenses, including a penalty of up to five years of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 100,000 baht (US$2,700). Lawyers, internet and media professionals, and bloggers fear that in a tense political environment, these provisions could easily be misused by the authorities against political opponents and critics of military rule.
Human Rights Watch said that freedom of expression and pluralism, including tolerance of dissenting views, is vital if Thailand wants to be a rights-respecting democracy. Active exchanges of peaceful ideas and opinions should be encouraged, not punished.
“Freedom of expression, including offering opinions on the internet, is an essential basis of any functioning democracy,” Adams said. “Blocking critical websites resembles the behavior of China and Vietnam. Is this the company that Thailand’s leaders want to keep?”