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Journalists urge government to be "considerate" in curbing free speech on Internet, call for reform of Printing Act and broadcast media laws

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is a SEAPA press release:

On World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2007, Thai press advocates urged the military-installed government to be "considerate" in curbing free expression on the Internet and to recognise the positive force of this new media innovation in widening free space for public opinion.

The joint call was made in a statement, issued at the end of a public discussion in Bangkok on "Free Expression in the Digital Age in Thailand," organised by the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA) in cooperation with Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

The statement, signed by TJA, TBJA and the Federation of Thai Journalists, voiced particular concern over the government's increased curtailment of access to information, largely on the Internet, which "in practice, is barely controllable and increasingly the alternative medium of access to information for people".

Since the military takeover that toppled elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on 19 September 2006, the government has censored or filtered a number of news websites and web forums that criticised the coup makers, the drafting of the new constitution and the monarchy, while leaving the print media - and to a lesser degree, the broadcast media - relatively unhindered.

The local press advocates also urged the mainstream media to recognise the existence of this new media and its right to enjoy the same freedoms that they do, even while acknowledging its potential to cause social disorder and instability.

They also reminded the government of the main remaining obstacles to the promotion of press freedom - namely, the 1941 Printing Act, which gives printing authorities the power to shut down the media, and the long delay to promulgate laws to reform the broadcast media sector.

In response, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Minister Sitthichai Pokaiudom said the government has tolerated all criticism and opinions about it but the monarchy remains off-limits. Sitthichai said in general the mainstream press and new media have been doing their jobs very well except that they should exercise greater caution as regards "unpleasant content".

He gave assurances that the legislation on computer-related crimes, which is expected to be passed by the interim National Legislative Assembly in May, would uphold media freedom, embody the principle of good governance and prevent excessive use of state power to curtail media freedom.

The ICT ministry plans to launch a website, "saphazupzip" (literally, "gossip council"), to promote government policies. Citizens will be allowed to freely express their comments about the government's performance.

The minister claimed that since the coup, only 16 websites have been ordered closed, and they are mostly sites dedicated to pornography. However, three non-pornographic websites, www.hi-thaksin.net, youtube.com and Ratchadamnoen, the popular web forum for political opinions, are among those ordered closed.

Internet freedom advocates in Thailand and abroad, however, estimated that more than a thousand websites were filtered or closed in the country. They also cautioned that the draft bill on computer-related crimes could lead to the excessive use of power and "vague" excuses - disguised under "protection of national security, good morals and order" - to curtail free expression. Under the law, webmasters could face fines or jail terms for allowing on their websites content that is considered to threaten such concerns.

The curtailing of the Internet is one factor that led to Thailand's press freedom ranking slipping to 127, to another year of "partially free" status, according to a survey by US-based Freedom House. In 2005, during former premier Thaksin's tenure, when the overall media environment was gloomier, the country was ranked 107 in the survey.

At the discussion forum, webmasters admitted there was a climate of fear among the Internet community as a result of state censorship. They favoured the self-regulatory model as an effective mechanism to control Internet communication.

They suggested a strong network of "netizen" (Internet citizen) watchdogs be established to work closely with the existing self-regulatory body on the Internet to censor "evil" content. State control will not be effective, as the nature of the Internet is free," said Paramesh Minsiri, president of the Thai Webmasters Association (TWA).

Paipoon Amornpinyokiat, adviser to TWA, cited Australia's self-regulatory model, in which civil society forms a strong network to regulate the Internet by itself, a practice which was later adopted as the governing law by the Australian Parliament.

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