Government intensifies media, Internet crackdown

New York, January 30, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about mounting government threats to media and Internet freedom in Thailand, including legal action against community radio stations and censoring thousands of Web sites.

On Thursday, Justice Minister Pirapan Salirathavibhaga told a parliamentary session that his ministry intends to censor 3,000 to 4,000 Web sites for posting materials considered offensive to the Thai monarchy. The Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Ministry announced on January 5 that it had shut down 2,300 Web sites for violating the country’s strict lese majeste laws. Lese majeste is a criminal offense in Thailand and convictions are punishable by a maximum 15 years in prison.

Piraphan said that he had established 10 different panels to implement the Internet crackdown and that his ministry was working closely with the ICT and Defense ministries. He mentioned in particular that three Thai nationals had been identified for posting anti-monarchy materials on the Web site Manussaya and that one of the writers has been arrested on lese majeste charges. He did not mention any of the alleged perpetrators by name.

On Wednesday, Satit Wongnongtaey, a minister in the prime minister’s office, proposed taking legal action against five community radio stations he contended were causing unrest through their news reporting. He mentioned specifically the Taxi Lovers Club radio station situated in Bangkok and four others located in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Udon Thani provinces.

The areas are known to be strongholds of former and now exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, political rival to the now incumbent Democrat Party-led coalition. Satit sent a proposal to investigate the stations for instigating unrest to the government’s Public Relations Department’s subcommittee on broadcasting and told reporters that the subcommittee “must take quick action against them.” He did not specify what form that action might take.    

“Thailand is headed in the same direction as its historically more authoritarian neighbors–including Myanmar, Vietnam and China–in regards to Internet censorship,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director. “We call on the country’s new democratic government to quickly reverse this worrying trend and instead work toward reestablishing the country as a regional standard-bearer for free expression.”

CPJ recently reviewed a copy of draft legislation signed by Piraphan that intends to expand the censorship powers vested in the controversial 2007 Computer Crime Act. According to the draft amendments, ICT ministry officials would no longer be required to receive court approval before blocking and censoring Web sites. Thai courts approved the ICT Ministry’s earlier blockage of 2,300 Web sites on grounds of lese majeste, but officials have since said that the legal process has slowed their work in censoring the recent proliferation of anti-monarchy materials posted to the Internet. 

On January 27, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva expressing its concerns about Thailand’s fast deteriorating media climate. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The dateline has been corrected to 2009.