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CAPSULE REPORT: SEAPA reviews Internet censorship under junta rule

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 10 July 2007 SEAPA report:

Thailand - The state of the Internet

On 18 July 2007, a law to prevent cyber crime is expected to come into force in Thailand. It will be the first law in the country to govern the Internet. This capsule report outlines developments relating to the Internet since the 19 September 2006 coup that ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Thai interim government gained world notoriety for its assault on the Internet soon after it came to power following the September 2006 military coup. Online forums and sites opposing the coup were blocked. More recently, in April 2007, the junta-appointed government blocked local access to the internationally popular video-sharing website, YouTube, for refusing to remove a clip that had allegedly insulted the monarchy.

Internet censorship since the coup in Thailand is "licensed" by the Criminal Code and Announcement No. 5 of the Council for Democratic Reform, the governing body formed by the coup leaders, later renamed the Council for National Security. Prior to the coup, the government under Thaksin Shinawatra took it upon itself to censor some 14,000 websites, most of them pornographic, although there was no law governing the Internet then.

Order No. 5 allows the authorities to control, obstruct and prevent information that might affect national security, including the banning of websites deemed as such.

The Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies censors websites with the help of the state-owned telecommunications company CAT Telecom. The junta bans lèse majesté, pornography and content that is deemed as "threatening national security", blocking an average of 10 sites a night, 90-95 percent of which are pornographic. Volunteer web managers and Telecom staff serve as monitors, numbering 60 during the day and 24 at night.

The Telecom officers also act on public complaints from irate parental groups and media opinion leaders, as well as orders from a national security unit that monitors web content. Upon investigation and affirmation of the objections, the officers will negotiate with the web managers concerned for the removal of the sites.

On their constant watch list are 10 websites. Among them is "Hi-Thaksin", which was set up in support of the ousted prime minister. The website has been intermittently blocked, most recently prior to a 30 May court ruling on the fate of Thaksin's eventually outlawed political party.

While the three taboo subjects are clearly spelt out, defining what constitutes such content, however, is subjective and difficult to arrive at in reality, especially in view of the varied content forms of text, graphic and audio-visual. The Telecom staff spend many a night debating whether a website should be censored, even with the guiding rule that there should be an element of "incitement to gather and demonstrate". If they fail to arrive at a consensus, the team refers the case to a ministerial committee supervising Internet filtering. Once a decision is made, they ask either the Internet service provider (ISP) or the webmasters they are in contact with to do the actual blocking or shuttering. The minister for information and communications technology has the sole authority to decide what is and remains blocked.

Responding to journalists during a talk in the Bangkok capital on 26 June, the minister concerned, Dr Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, claimed that under his watch only around 200 sites were blocked, stressing that most of them were pornographic, though he admitted to blocking "Hi-Thaksin", and "Saturdayvoice". The latter is an anti-coup website, blocked during a period when "violent discussion" was discouraged, said the minister.

However, an Internet watchdog group alleges that more than 17,000 websites have been blocked since the junta took over the country. Both sides cast doubts on the other's figures, but what remains indisputable is that Internet censorship is happening, and has gained world attention following the drastic ban on YouTube over a clip that was deemed insulting to revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

On the controversial ban, the minister said it will be lifted soon as YouTube has agreed to block Thailand's access to such clips.

"The aim of blocking is not to prevent people from viewing the offensive clips - because what happens is, they'll just get angry about them - but rather to make a stand that this should not be done," he said, adding that he would have been lynched if he had not acted against YouTube.

Sitthichai said he would have preferred the ISPs to block the problematic pages concerned rather than the whole website, but that could not be done due to limited technology.

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All this will supposedly be moot soon as the minister is recommending to abolish Announcement No. 5 ahead of the new Computer-Related Offences Commission Act, which is expected to come into effect on 18 July.

Already, a resolution was passed on 7 June allowing access to the 200 websites blocked since the coup, with about 40 unblocked as of end June, including the "Hi-Thaksin" and "Saturdayvoice" websites.

The supposedly gracious act of unblocking websites, however, anticipates the promulgation of the Computer-Related Offences Commission Act, which criminalises the generation, possession, storage, dissemination of and access to prohibited information on the Internet. Although the law also provides for due process through the courts - as opposed to the current opaque set-up of officials acting on "public complaints" against "objectionable" websites, with the minister having the sole and final say - the granting of power to the court to impose harsh penalties from high fines to imprisonment over what is ultimately a basic human right can create a chilling effect on Internet freedom and curtail free expression.

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For the full text of the report, see:

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