Thailand Falls Farther Back into the Dark Ages
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.