Thai Junta Tightens Media Censorship
(IPS) BANGKOK --
military-backed government lifted a ban on the popular video-sharing website ‘YouTube' and passed an easier printing act this week, but newly tightened computer crime laws suggest that free expression is still being stifled.
By mid-morning on Friday, Internet users were able to view the video clips posted from across the world on YouTube after the government in Bangkok ended a nearly five-month ban.
The change of heart followed a decision by the management of this popular website to filter video footage considered ‘'offensive' to the Thai public and those that violated Thai law, according to officials from the ministry of information and communication technology (ICT).
YouTube has ‘'finished creating a program that would block sensitive video clips from being accessed from Thai Internet service providers,' ICT minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom was quoted in Friday's edition of ‘The Nation,' an English-language daily.
The junta, which came to power following last September's coup, and the government it appointed, took a tough line on a video clip that prompted the censorship of YouTube on Apr. 3. The offensive video had targeted Thailand's revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This Southeast Asia kingdom regards any comments critical of the royal household a violation of its lese majeste law, for which offenders can be served a 15-year jail sentence if found guilty.
But the Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA), a Bangkok-based regional media rights watchdog, called into question the agreement reached between Bangkok, YouTube and Google, the company that controls YouTube, to filter content for audiences in Thailand. ‘'Any such collusion between Google and the Thai government could potentially be open for abuse and wide-reaching interpretations, and thereby only exacerbate concerns over free speech over the Internet,' SEAPA said in a statement released Friday.
There was hardly a hint of such concern in another corner of Thailand's media world though, as the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved a new printing act that marked the end of the 1941 Printing and Publishing Act, deemed suppressive by the Thai press. The old law had been introduced with an eye on national security concerns rather than advancing press freedom. It gave the authorities broad power to use the pretext of a threat to the state to go after critical newspapers.
The new printing act, on the other hand, guarantees an individual the freedom to establish a publication without having to ask for approval from the authorities, which was a clause in the old act. The power given to the police to shut down a printing press -- another clause in the old act -- has been done away with, too.
‘'That archaic law has been abolished altogether and we are happy with this change,' Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor of The Nation, told IPS. ‘'The old law was a cancer on Thai journalism. Now the cancer has been removed.'
But what worries Kavi and other Thai media rights activists and local website managers is the Computer Crime Act, a law pushed by the NLA that came into effect just over a month ago. This first law to govern Internet use in the country appears to have drawn inspiration from the 1941 Printing and Publishing Act, since the authorities have been given broad power to crack down on content considered a threat to Thailand. In the worst case, violators could face a possible prison sentence for using proxy servers to access websites blocked by the government.
Fears surrounding the new law are justified, given the culture of censorship that the military leaders imposed on the country after they ousted twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. Online forums and websites that opposed the coup and sympathized with Thaksin -- no friend of a free media, either -- were blocked. In the provinces, some 300 community radio stations were banned out of fear that they may challenge the putsch.
By July, before the new computer crime law took effect, the ICT ministry was accused by an Internet watchdog group for blocking access to over 17,000 websites since the coup on Sep. 19. The ICT minister, however, disagreed with those figures, saying that the government had only blocked about 200 websites, most of them offering pornography.
‘'This law is ambiguous in some parts and is open for the authorities to abuse it,' says Supinya Klangnarong, secretary general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), a local media rights watchdog. ‘'Normally, cyber crime laws try to stop spam, go after those who spread a virus and they prohibit child pornography. But the law in Thailand has also listed national security, public order and morality as Internet crimes.'
As troubling, she told IPS, is the new burden placed on the Internet service providers and those who manage websites. ‘'They are now answerable to the government or the new cyber cops about material used on the Internet. This will force them into a climate of fear.'
A web manager of a popular political website in Thai, ‘prachatai,' echoes similar worries about the limits placed by the new law. ‘'This law will result in self-censorship,' Chiranuch Premchaiyaporn, manager of ‘prachatai,' told IPS. ‘'I am worried that the authorities have the power to ask us for information on our website without a court order.'
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