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Silenced smiles: Freedom of expression in Thailand

July 7 marked 90 days since Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Thailand. Even though Thai security forces quelled the Red Shirt protests in late May, the Abhisit administration recently extended the emergency decree over nearly a third of the kingdom for an additional three months. While much has been said about the political, economic and social impacts of the kingdom’s recent unrest, little attention has been given to the dangerous erosion of freedom of expression in Thailand

East Asia Forum

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Police units near Dusit hotel, Silom business district

July 7 marked 90 days since Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Thailand. Even though Thai security forces quelled the Red Shirt protests in late May, the Abhisit administration recently extended the emergency decree over nearly a third of the kingdom for an additional three months. While much has been said about the political, economic and social impacts of the kingdom’s recent unrest, little attention has been given to the dangerous erosion of freedom of expression in Thailand.

 

The recent cycle of deadly violence began on March 12, when tens of thousands of Red Shirt protesters rallied against the Abhisit government.What initially began as peaceful protest eventually escalated into the worst political violence in nearly four decades, leaving 90 people dead and over 1,900 injured.

As Bangkok’s streets turned into battle zones, an energetic buzz spread across the internet

With televised and print media unable to keep up with the fast pace of events, many people in Thailand turned to the web for updates and news. Thailand’s estimated 16 million internet users held lively debates on message boards and chat rooms, some supporting the Red Shirts and others denouncing them. Thai authorities recognised these new forums shaping public opinion, and quickly launched a campaign to control the content and character of the public debate online.

Immediately after a state of emergency was declared on April 7, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban signed an emergency order blocking access to 36 websites throughout Thailand. The blocked URLs consisted mostly of pro-Red Shirt websites, but also included independent media sites such as Prachatai.com.

In the aftermath of violent clashes on April 28, Thai authorities blocked access to websites showing video clips of the violent confrontations between Thai security forces and Red Shirt protesters. These included Prachathai’s Facebook page, websites www.springnewstv.com and www.vimeo.com, and several URLs on YouTube. Web activists monitoring the government’s actions noted that it took less than 10 minutes for officials to block public access to a URL deemed to undermine the official narrative.

On May 19, after government-controlled programming took over local TV stations, many in Thailand turned online for news, only to find new restrictions on cyberspace. Certain pages of English-language websites, such as New Mandala and Political Prisoners in Thailand, were actively blocked by Thai authorities. Access to Facebook and Twitter was irregular at this crucial time. These sites were a source of graphic images from the military offensive against the Red Shirt protesters, postings from banned sites, and independent reporting from the scene of events.

During the crises, Sue Loruthai, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, cautioned Thais to use the internet in the ‘right way’ and avoid disseminating information that could create misunderstanding among the public, warning that popular websites and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, hi5 and MySpace would be under watch. Such comments only intensified the pre-existing culture of fear and self-censorship in Thailand.

The exact number of websites and URLs blocked by Thai authorities remains unknown, yet even the conservative estimates are disturbing

Under the Internal Security Act, from March 11 until April 6, Thai authorities blocked at least 9,000 unique web addresses. During the State of Emergency, from April 7 until July 7, at least 612 websites were blocked in a process lacking transparency or public accountability. In addition, at least two individuals were arrested for posting or creating content in breach of the vaguely defined clause of national security.

The recent spate of political turmoil seems to have added new vigour to efforts to limit freedom of expression in Thailand. On June 15, the Thai government established the new Bureau of Prevention and Eradication of Computer Crime to prevent and suppress online offences. On June 17, newly appointed ICT Minister Juti Krairiksh warned that internet service providers would face legal action and have their licenses revoked if they failed to cooperate with government efforts to block websites.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn repeatedly explained that authorities were not using the emergency decree to close down the general media, but only those media outlets that incite violence or distort information. Yet while state and military owned or operated media continue to operate freely, opposition and independent media are blocked, banned or otherwise restricted.

Under the guise of promoting harmony and unity in Thailand, prominent voices continue to push for stricter regulation of the internet. Current efforts focus on silencing opposing voices rather then facilitating dialogue. The important role that free expression, especially online, plays in defusing tensions is all but ignored in Thailand today.

A state of emergency is characterised by its temporary nature. The Abhisit administration’s current policies give the impression that the government wishes to make permanent changes to where and how individuals can express their opinions. This would be a step backwards for one of Southeast Asia’s most open nations. More importantly, stifling the public debate on the divisions and challenges facing Thai society will not make the conflicts go away. Instead, restricting freedom of expression will only impede efforts to achieve true reconciliation and lasting calm throughout the kingdom.

Jonathan Fox is an independent researcher working on freedom of information in Southeast Asia.

  1. Ongoing struggles in Thailand
  2. Thailand’s unstoppable red shirts
  3. Reporting from Thailand’s political front lines

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Silenced smiles: Freedom of expression in Thailand

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