The chilling effect: Thai junta strengthens online censorship with cyber law tweaks
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The chilling effect: Thai junta strengthens online censorship with cyber law tweaks

A LITTLE over two and a half years since it seized power, Thailand’s ruling junta has paved the way for its biggest clampdown on Internet freedom so far after significant changes to the Computer Crime Act, which were approved Friday.

Despite the detention of journalists, countless lese majeste convictions, harassment of foreign media and regular ‘attitude adjustments’, the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) decided Friday afternoon that further Internet control measures are required.

After the gradual erosion of freedom of speech since 2014, the changes to the law look to be the final step in the junta’s plan to control political discourse in the Southeast Asian nation. Commentators have warned that at the very least we’re likely to see a significant chilling effect on online freedom of expression. At worst, the junta could use the amendments to rewrite Thailand’s political history and jail its critics.

Tightening control over cyberspace has been a chief goal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government since it came to power, but Friday’s developments will not sit well with a nation that has been denied democracy, and often basic human rights, for more than 30 months.

Long before Friday’s seemingly inevitable outcome at the NLA, Thai citizens took to the Internet in their hundreds of thousands to protest the amendments to the Act. A change.org petition had gained more than 365,000 signatures at time of writing, while a live Facebook stream of Friday’s NLA session was reportedly bombarded with negative comments and emojis.

While Thai authorities insist that the changes will protect Internet users, netizens and freedom of speech advocates fear that the vaguely worded amendments will strengthen the culture of fear surrounding freedom of speech in Thailand and lead to increased defamation charges against those who criticise the junta.

Of particular concern is an amendment that allows for anyone with “distorted” content on their computer or device to be jailed for up to five years. What actually constitutes “distorted” content seems to be anybody’s guess.

Other changes allow for content that is considered by committees under the digital ministry to be “a threat to public order” or “against good morals” to be deleted after a proper court order is issued. However, the committee can order content to be deleted without court approval in “emergency” situations.

Even more worryingly, the court will have the power to order the permanent deletion of any Internet content that is deemed “false”. The junta has time and again displayed its eagerness to control Thailand’s political narrative. The amended Act could allow it to shape its own version of history.

At the individual level, if an Internet user is suspected of producing or downloading “distorted” or “immoral” content, authorities can demand their full browsing history from their Internet service provider (ISP), seize their computer and devices, and demand passwords to their social media accounts. The ISPs, meanwhile, will be required to actively monitor content through their service.

SEE ALSO: Understanding Thailand’s revised Computer Crime Act

The amendments to the Act give Thailand’s junta unprecedented powers of censorship.

How it uses these powers remains to be seen, but the signs are ominous. Authorities have closed ranks since the death of much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October and the ascension to the throne of King Maha Vajiralongkorn this month.

The junta’s already uneasy relationship with the foreign press deteriorated further this month when it blocked an “inappropriate” BBC article on the new king. Police and military visited the British broadcaster’s Bangkok office amid threats of prosecution, while a pro-democracy activist was charged with royal defamation for sharing the article.

Predictably, the junta used the incident to stoke nationalist sentiment and highlight the foreign media threat in the run-up to Friday’s NLA session, likely in an attempt to make it more palatable to Thai netizens, who will bear the brunt of the changes.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are part of the media or not. If you break this country’s laws, you will be punished,” Prayuth said earlier this month. “[Their action] may not be considered wrong in foreign countries, I don’t know. But it is unlawful in Thailand and there’s no exception.”

However the junta chooses to wield its new powers, a further chilling effect in an already anxious environment seems inevitable.

 

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent