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NEW COALITION STANDS UP FOR FREE EXPRESSION ONLINE

Amid the Thai authorities' excessive use of defamation laws and laws that restrict media coverage of issues involving the royal family, activists have launched a new civic coalition to promote and protect free expression online, reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

The Thai Netizens Network, made up of media reformers, human rights campaigners, webmasters and bloggers, will campaign at the national level to promote and protect netizens' rights, freedom of online media and citizen journalism.

According to the network's coordinator, Supinya Klangnarong, about 400 URLs have been banned over charges related to criminal defamation and lèse majesté - an offense against the dignity of the monarchy.

"The problem is that cyber-crime police find it difficult to proceed with these cases in court because they could not arrest the suspected offenders," said Supinya.

The Thai government introduced the Computer-Related Crime Act in 2007 to address increased undermining of the monarchy online, besides battling pornography and computer-related crimes such as hacking and data theft.

The Thai Netizens Network, a spin-off of an earlier but narrower initiative called Freedom Against Censorship in Thailand, says many of the clauses are problematic, such as article 19, which gives cyber-crime officers too broad an authority to determine what constitutes an offense.

Article 15 requires webmasters and ISP providers to heavily filter or self-censor "offensive" material. They are also obliged to keep electronic files of clients dating back to at least 90 days since they were posted.

The network says one of its prime tasks is to lobby for an amendment that separates free expression from ordinary computer-related crimes. "There should be a parameter or a definition of criminal offenses specified under the anti-cyber crime bill. Expressing opinion, right or wrong, should not be a criminal offense in the first place," Supinya said.

"Netizens are currently fearful of expressing their opinion since whatever they post on the Internet could easily land them in jail," said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, manager of Prachathai.com, the political and social online news website. "Disproportionate use of laws will drive them to a dark corner where they would be more difficult to monitor," he added.

For more information on the coalition, see SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org/newdesign/newsdetail.php?No=1004

(17 December 2008)

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