Marwaan in IPS:
As if the country’s draconian lese-majeste laws are not harsh enough, Thailand’s thought police have another weapon, the computer crimes law, to curtail the space for free expression./>Friday saw a new low in this South-east Asian country when the police raided the Bangkok office of ‘Prachatai’, a popular alternative news website, to arrest its editor, Chiranuch Premchaiporn.…What triggered the arrest was a comment posted on the ‘Prachatai’ message board on Oct. 15 last year. The police accused the website of leaving that comment on its web board for 20 days. It was viewed as having a reference to the royal family./>‘’It was a long post (in Thai) with metaphors. The message was unclear if it was violating the lese-majeste law or not,’’ the 42-year-old Chiranuch, who was released on bail, told IPS./>‘’I was shocked when I learnt about the arrest warrant. I didn’t expect this,’’ revealed the editor of the website that was launched in 2004 to provide news and commentary that the mainstream print and broadcast media avoid./>‘’Her arrest has created tension in the Internet community in Thailand,’’ says Supinya Klangnarong, a media rights campaigner who heads the Thai Netizens Network, a group lobbying for the rights of Internet users. ‘’If Thai society cannot accept the free nature of Internet, we have a big problem.’’/>‘’It is too much to raid the office and to force her to go to the police,’’ Supinya added during an IPS interview. ‘’We don’t want to see people put into jail for using the Internet.’’/>The arrest of Chiranuch, who could be jailed for five years if found guilty, points to an ominous trend. Four other Thais have been charged for committing a cyber crime before her. ‘’They were all individual Internet users; Chiranuch is the first moderator of an on-line news website to be charged,’’ says Supinya.…‘’The government has set up a ‘war room’ to coordinate this effort. They are not only monitoring websites but are investigating people who post offensive comments in order to track them down,’’ said a source familiar with this operation set up to give more teeth to the cyber crime law.
Last Friday Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was speaking eloquently in front of three dozen Asian editors and publishers about his efforts to bring back Thailand’s reputation as a land of free media. Four hours later, however, his dream would be shattered. Pol Col Satit Tachayapop, deputy commander of the Crime Suppression Division led 10 officials armed with a search warrant signed a day earlier to the Prachatai. com office in Huay Kwang./>Within minutes, news of this Internet harassment reached four corners of the world. It has made Thailand look a fool again./>In his speech, Abhisit said in the Thai political history, Thai media have sometimes been stripped of rights to inform and restrict press freedom. As a former spokesperson, he knew the value of free press. He presided over the 1997-2001 government that enjoyed high rankings in global free-media indexes of well-known international media monitoring groups.
Under his leadership, the media communities would be protected to ensure they can operate with freedom, non-interference and social responsibility. He pledged to amend any law that contravenes the rights and freedom of the people and the media. In months to come, he said this government would amend the Official Information Act (1997) to promote access and disclosure of official information. Of late, the access to information instrument has been used to halt disclosure of information. For the first time, he said the approach to the abuse of libel law should be to increase the weight of the burden of proof so that unsubstantiated lawsuits would not proliferate./>In the long run, he said the government will attempt to reform the entire media sector “in a comprehensive, fair and transparent manner and continue to improve the role of state media agencies to better serve the public interest.”/>No other governments in recent memory have had similar courage and vision to spell out the Thai media reforms like the Abhisit-led government has done so far.
But a frequently asked question is: Can he do it? Previous media-reform efforts, regardless of the subject matter, have been politicised and polarised. Past decisions, often done surreptitiously with knee-jerk reactions, have been linked to vested interest groups and influential members of ruling parties of the day. The establishment in 2007 of Thai Public Broadcasting Service during the Surayuth government was a rare exception.*/>In the two months since he took over the Thai premiership, he has established excellent rapport with the Thai and foreign media. His message to promote freedom of expression is strong and well received by media communities. However, his future legacy as the defender of free media will be judged in large part by the level of Internet freedom overhere. So far, it does not bode well with his promises.
The raid on the office of Prachaitai and the arrest of its webmaster, Ms Chiranuch Premchaiportn, was a big slap to his face. If the prime minister fails to understand quickly the far-reaching implications resulting from such media harassment including arrests of webmasters and closures of thousands of websites, he would be perceived as a hypocrite who does not match words with deeds. Somehow, concerned officials in the Ministry of Information Technology and Communication, Ministry of Culture, special branch police and other agencies still treat Abhisit’s convictions with a grain of salt. It was as if they were pursuing different policy guidelines and priorities which can undermine the prime minister’s trustworthiness and creditability./>In the first few years, when the Internet was introduced in the early 1990’s, there were only around 200 subscribers limited to the academic world. At present, Thailand has around 15 million online users and their numbers are growing as the online fee comes down. Indeed, there would be more netizens in the country if not for the culture of fear that the Thai authorities have instilled since the Cyber Crime Law came in place in July 2007.
Ironically, Abhisit has to deal with a dilemma related to Internet freedom. In all countries with press freedom, the Internet would remain open—a strong correlation between free press and Internet access. But in the case of Thailand, as it is practised today, the opposite is true. While printed and general media environment is pretty free, the filtering of the Internet is on the rise, judging from the numbers of blocked and shut down websites. It is customary for the authorities to say that these targeted websites contained pornography and views insulting the monarch. Truth be told, only about 100 of the 4,800 shutdown websites early this year were pornographic, the rest were websites considered the latter case. Surprising, most were just disapproving, nothing serious, except a few hard-core ones. Only 30 websites were identified as fake commercial websites./>Online users are mainly young people, who have used all forms of new media including proliferating web-boards for self-expression. It was the postings by “Buffalo Boy” last October inside the Prachatai’s web-board that got the alternative website into trouble. A warning should have been sufficient and appropriate to the case. Instead, the Crime Suppression Division preferred the harsh measure of arresting the webmaster but later on freeing her on bail. Damage has been done. Inside web-boards, all sorts of views are expressed including tasteless ones. But these are part and parcel of information societies. It would be futile to monitor all postings. After all, we are not living in a police state. Any response must be proportionate. The best option is to educate the online users, especially the first time users, about freedom of expression and their responsibilities as well as lessons on cyber crime laws. Concerned authorities also need to educate themselves and catch up with the changing role of media, especially online, in transforming the most hidden secrets or parts of anything into public domain.