Fighting back against Thai censorship

Thailand’s Internet–once open and free–is fast morphing into one of Asia’s more censored cyberspaces. But a new group of concerned Thai citizens, known as the Thai Netizen Network (TNN), is bidding to turn back the tide of government censorship through advocacy and monitoring. 

Web sites that have posted materials deemed potentially offensive to the Thai royal family have been blocked by successive military-appointed and democratically elected Thai governments. And the campaign of censorship is accelerating under new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The monarchy has been caught in the middle of Thailand’s grinding political conflict, with competing camps hurling allegations of disloyalty against one another. To assert its pro-crown credentials, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology announced in January that it had blocked more than 2,300 Web sites for posting anti-monarchy materials. The Justice Ministry meanwhile said last week that it aims to block an additional 3,000-4,000 sites on the same grounds.

Beginning last year, a group of academics, activists, journalists and webmasters held informal meetings to discuss the emerging threat to Internet freedom in the wake of the passage of the 2007 Cyber Crime Act and the intensified use of lese majeste charges against journalists, commentators, and everyday Internet users. Both laws give Thai officials the authority to censor news and opinions that could be deemed a threat to national security or the monarchy.  

TNN coalesced into a formal organization soon after several local Web sites, including news and commentary outlets Prachathai and Fah Diew Kan, were threatened with closure last year by officials for posting materials offensive to the monarchy. Fah Diew Kan’s site was eventually blocked in January after officials threatened the site’s ISP administrator.   

TNN coordinator Supinya Klangnarong told CPJ that the new group’s main missions are to keep Thailand’s Internet open and free, to monitor government surveillance and censorship, and to provide moral and legal support to Internet users and writers who encounter harassment for their postings.

Currently, TNN is publicizing the case and arranging legal representation for Suwicha Thakor, an oil-rig engineer who was arrested and held without bail on January 14 for posting materials onto the Internet considered offensive to the monarchy. They have also taken up the case of BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, who faces three different lese majeste complaints filed by a senior Thai police official.  

“We are trying to establish a channel with the police to reduce tension and frustration,” said Supinya from her back alley Bangkok office. “Finally they will need to talk to the public and give a clearer definition of what exactly constitutes lese majeste. We hope to help find that middle ground.”

The group has already notched some advocacy successes. On January 13, TNN members met with the prime minister to voice their concerns about the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology‘s recent move to establish an 80 million baht (US$2.29 million) “war room” tasked with monitoring and censoring the Internet.

During TNN’s meeting with the prime minister, the group’s core members proposed and Abhisit agreed to the establishment of a working group to discuss Internet freedom issues and the need to balance free expression with upholding the monarchy.  

“He said he understood our concerns, but that we needed to understand he is under pressure from many groups to protect the country and monarchy,” Supinya said, recounting the meeting. “We’re still waiting to hear back from him.”

(Reporting from Bangkok)