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In censoring Web, Thailand could worsen crisis

As part of its declaration of emergency, the Thai government last week radically broadened existing Internet censorship powers to prohibit a wide range of speech, including independent commentary and newsgathering. In doing so, it has exacerbated an already fragile political situation and may have permanently weakened Thailand's constitutional protections for press freedom.

Thai media have always played a key role in the ongoing battle between the supporters of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and those of the current premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva. While Abhisit has access to the state media, Thaksin communicates with his supporters via statements covered by sympathetic satellite TV and relayed through community radio stations. As more Thai citizens have gained access to the Internet (16.1 million, or nearly a quarter of the population had access in 2009, according to the International Telecommunications Union), the debate over the country's governance has spilled onto the Web and social networking sites. Thaksin tweets to his fans; the prime minister's spokesperson Satit Wonghnongtaey gives the government line on his Twitter account. And everywhere on the Thai Net, writers and commenters have freely discussed the escalating tensions.

But the government has cracked down on this free discussion and analysis. Last week, bypassing even Thailand's slight legal protections against abuse of its Internet filters, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsaban used emergency powers to directly block 37 Web addresses. Most were sites closely affiliated with the opposition "Red Shirt" movement, but also named on the black list were the popular news and discussion site Prachatai and the online edition and forums of Fah Diew Kan magazine. Both claim to be independent news sites, and are used for unaffiliated political discussion. 

Thailand's existing online censorship system is supposedly moderated by court oversight. The censor, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT), filters the Internet by seeking court orders against sites, according to the country's Computer Crime Act. On the basis of the court orders, MICT then instructs local Internet service providers (ISPs) to block those sites from Thai users.

In common with many national Internet censorship systems, however, the MICT black list is secret. The court orders are not public, there is no obvious system of appeal, and there is no possibility of public supervision. Since the military coup four years ago, critics allege that MICT's censorship has widened beyond the pornographic and gambling sites it has given as its primary targets. Leaked MICT black lists corroborate that opposition sites are targeted by the censor, and during states of emergency, such as the current unrest and during last April's uprising, the blocking is widened even further. 

One day after the April 8 declaration of martial law, MICT held a press conference at which it announced 9,000 to 10,000 new site blocks since the Red Shirt protests began, with an intention to block 700 more. CJ Hinke, organizer of local online rights group Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, believes that MICT will use the state of emergency to block these sites without legal oversight. "Even if they don't implement blocking during martial law (which I think is their intent)," he tells CPJ, "the public is much less likely to complain against the government in a state of emergency. The timing was both practical--no court order[s] necessary--and psychological."

The new political role for Thailand's Internet censors was reinforced by a leaked direct order from the deputy prime minister dated April 8, requiring 37 sites to be shut down immediately. Prachatai, a news site whose name means "Free People", and WeAreAllHuman, the Web forum of Same Sky Books, publisher of the left-leaning news magazine Fah Diew Kan, were also banned. It remains unclear why these two unaffiliated sources were targeted by the order. Hinke believes the deputy prime minister may be motivated by discussions on the sites that have criticized his actions in office. 

Thai authorities have long targeted site owners as responsible for the content of forum commenters on sites. The manager of Prachatai, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, was recently charged with offenses under Thailand's Computer Crimes Act, a law whose wording implies that Internet hosts are criminally responsible for the speech of others using their systems. The charges pointed to posts on Prachatai that may have violated Thailand's strict laws on lese majeste (or criticizing the monarchy). Neutral news sites appear to have been blocked out of fear that their readers will comment and share knowledge about the current protests. 

The plans so far appear to have backfired for the Thai government. Its order closing the Red Shirt-affiliated satellite TV station, People Television, became a flash point for confrontation and violence. The deaths of Thais and the fatal shooting of a Reuters photographer at later protests have dominated the domestic and international coverage of the situation. The Internet blocking has proved ineffective at completely preventing Thais from relaying and discussing the censorship and fatalities. 

While the government lists Web addresses for ISPs to prohibit, information on many Web pages can be viewed via more than one address--and creating a new address for an existing page is relatively easy. So, while new prohibitions ban a single Twitter account at http://twitter.com/uddtoday, ISPs have not been blocking http://mobile.twitter.com/uddtoday , which carries the same content, optimized by Twitter for mobile phones, but viewable by any Web browser. Readers of Prachatai were able to get around the ban on prachatai.com by visiting the quickly-organized www.prachataiboard.com, www.prachatai.org and www.prachatai.net, and by joining a Prachatai Facebook page

By blocking these neutral sites, the prime minister may be losing the sympathy of the many Thais who "wear no shirt" (neither the yellow of the current administration's supporters nor the red of the opposition), people who use the sites to communicate about the deteriorating situation. Supinya Klangnarong, of Thailand's digital rights advocacy organization, Thai Netizen Network, notes that the censorship frustrates and angers more than it calms the situation. "It can be a frightening thing for both the protesters and the general public not to have access to reliable information," she tells the Asia Media Forum.

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