Thai­land Falls Far­ther Back into the Dark Ages

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If you are read­ing this ar­ti­cle in Thai­land, it is prob­a­bly not hap­pen­ing on the In­ter­net, be­cause just a few weeks ago the Na­tional Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly of Thai­land voted to tighten what many say is one of the most dra­co­nian cen­sor­ship laws in the world. Thai­land was al­ready well-known for its op­pres­sive laws block­ing much of the pub­lic crit­i­cism of ei­ther the monar­chy or the leg­isla­tive branches of gov­ern­ment. As one ex­am­ple, a for­eign jour­nal­ist who ear­lier this year took a photo of the cur­rent king-in-wait­ing for of­fice – a photo show­ing the prince with, some say, sloppy clothes and ex­posed tat­toos – was forced to quickly leave the coun­try to avoid pros­e­cu­tion and pos­si­ble jail time. More re­cently, the normally re­spected BBC was chal­lenged for its overly crit­i­cal re­port­ing of the same king-to-be, with pos­si­ble sanc­tions and crim­i­nal charges com­ing as well. In both cases, there was never much ar­gu­ment among those who knew the truth of the mat­ter about whether the re­port­ing was ac­cu­rate. The is­sue was that it was not al­lowed to be pub­lished. The new law, just ap­proved by Thai­land’s mil­i­tary-ap­pointed Na­tional Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly by a vote of 168 to 0 with four ab­sten­tions, pro­vides ma­jor amend­ments to the al­ready very tough 2007 Com­puter Crime Act. The new law al­lows the coun­try’s po­lice state to in­ter­cept pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions of all kinds and block web­sites con­sid­ered harm­ful to na­tional se­cu­rity or pub­lic morals. It also al­lows that to hap­pen with­out a court or­der or any hear­ing of “the other side” of any kind. It gets worse from there. Fur­ther parts of the law re­quire ser­vice providers to re­tain data for from 90 days to two years, de­pend­ing on what kind of in­for­ma­tion is in­volved. There are also crim­i­nal penal­ties, again eas­ily ap­plied on those as­sumed to be guilty, for un­der­min­ing na­tional se­cu­rity or put­ting false in­for­ma­tion into com­puter sys­tems. Whether or not se­cu­rity is un­der­mined or false in­for­ma­tion has been loaded in is, of course, at the dis­cre­tion of the author­i­ties, with lit­tle to no abil­ity for one to de­fend one­self.

The 2007 bill, while very tough, was ac­cepted by the pub­lic as a way of deal­ing with what the then gov­ern­ment saw as a means of rein­ing in an outof-con­trol In­ter­net world. This newer law, how­ever, is not be­ing swal­lowed so eas­ily by the lo­cals.

As the Thai le­gal mon­i­tor­ing web­site ilaw said in early De­cem­ber, “This law is rid­dled with prob­lems such as the broad in­ter­pre­ta­tion of what sort of data is not al­lowed on com­put­ers, which means peo­ple do not know where their bound­aries lie.”

And the Thai Ne­ti­zen Net­work, which drives for on­line free speech in the coun­try, is even more against the new law. The net­work’s Arhit Suriya­wongkul said the ug­li­ness starts with that con­cept of block­ing “false in­for­ma­tion,” some­thing that politi­cians could eas­ily use to block those who dis­agree with them from stat­ing their op­pos­ing views pub­licly. He went on to say that “the bill is very broad and open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and we will have to see how the gov­ern­ment will im­ple­ment these laws.”

An even more con­cern­ing step to many is the Thai gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal for ways to make it eas­ier to mon­i­tor and con­trol con­nec­tions be­tween Thai­land and the rest of the world. The idea is to cre­ate a sin­gle gate­way to con­trol com­mu­ni­ca­tions with in­ter­na­tional In­ter­net traf­fic. Many as­sume that such a sin­gle pipeline would be used to block in­for­ma­tion the coun­try’s lead­er­ship sees as threats to Thai­land’s na­tional se­cu­rity, while those crav­ing that very in­for­ma­tion see it as crit­i­cal to hav­ing a more bal­anced per­spec­tive of both Thai­land and the rest of the world.

Thai­land is of course not alone in cre­at­ing laws un­der a name like the Com­puter Crime Act.

The Philip­pines, which has a freer press over­all than in Thai­land, passed its Cy­ber­crime Pre­ven­tion Act, which in­cludes, among its many pro­vi­sions, the abil­ity for those feel­ing “dam­aged” by In­ter­net jour­nal­ists pub­lish­ing items that might be fac­tu­ally true to sue those who wrote the sto­ries for dam­ages. (An ex­am­ple in­cludes a na­tional leg­is­la­tor whose bank ac­counts were frozen by a court in a cor­rup­tion case and for which the court had pub­licly dis­closed the freez­ing of those as­sets. He sued the jour­nal­ist who wrote about the as­set freeze, us­ing the Cy­ber­crime Pre­ven­tion Act as a de­fense.)

There are also nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of sim­i­lar laws through­out Africa, with names sim­i­lar to these, be­ing used to sup­press dis­sent and free­dom of ex­pres­sion on a grand scale. In coun­tries where these laws ex­ist, the fear of be­ing charged and pos­si­bly fined and/or im­pris­oned is al­ready caus­ing many to keep from pub­lish­ing any­thing crit­i­cal at all of the gov­ern­ment.

In Thai­land, this newest law may be the tough­est yet among the many so-called freer coun­tries. It is also a place where few are likely to chal­lenge the gov­ern­ment in even the small­est way, thanks to this lat­est set of amend­ments to its Com­puter Crime Act.

Free ex­pres­sion is es­sen­tial to a civil so­ci­ety. If peo­ple can't speak out about cor­rup­tion, in­jus­tice and other things that are wrong then those things be­come more deeply en­trenched un­til so­ci­ety finds an­other way to cre­ate change. Thai­land's ob­so­lete rulers are ul­ti­mately dig­ging their own graves by sup­press­ing free speech.

Image: Photo travel Vlad / shutterstock.com

Image: Teim / shutterstock.com

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