Thailand Muzzles the Internet

Thailand’s increasingly prickly Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has issued instructions blocking more than 1,300 websites in 23 countries from Australia to Vietnam over the past several months, according to Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, a press freedom group, which made public a list of the sites over the weekend.

As Thailand’s political crisis has worn on, restrictions and media harassment have continued to increase. The country ranks 124th in the Reporters Without Borders worldwide press freedom index, having fallen from 107th in 2007 and 59th in 2004.

After months of devastating political turmoil, the Democrat Party, headed by the Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, was installed to head the government last week, ending more than three years in which allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra held royalist forces at bay. Vejjajiva has styled himself as a reformer, although he and his party have already come under considerable fire for the undemocratic way in which a raucous band of protesters paralyzed the country until a constitutional court declared the People’s Power Party illegal under questionable circumstances. Ranongruk Suwanchawee was appointed the new Information and Communication Technology minister. The blocklists do not fall under her administration and reformers are waiting to see if she will review the bans and reverse any of them.

According to FACT, although no website may be blocked legally without court order, the Thai police and internet service providers often block as they wish. The “blocklists,” as they are called, that were leaked to FACT cover seven months of actions by the authorities. They include court orders detailing applications of the Ministry authorizing most of the blocks and cite reasons of lese majeste, or insults to the royalty, and national security and are dated June 27, August 1, August 25 and December 9 signed by ICT ministry officers. Ironically, the PPP government that was blocking hundreds of websites on grounds of lese majeste was in a no-holds-barred squabble with the royalists for political primacy.

Thailand is hardly alone in Asia for blocking Internet sites. Last week, the New York Times was blocked across much of China, allowed only in hotels. According to a story on the affair by the New York Times’ Keith Bradsher, the Chinese-language Web sites of the BBC, the Voice of America and Asiaweek, were also blocked, although they were reopened last Friday. Bradsher quoted an official with the government’s International Press Center in Beijing as saying "It might be a technical problem." Malaysia has repeatedly threatened bloggers as well, but usually backed away from shutting them down.

Among the most famous, or infamous of the blocked sites in Thailand is of course YouTube, which was put on ice in July after it showed a 44-second series of pictures of the 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in one with a pink Afro and a red clown nose superimposed on his face.

Other blocked websites are located in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, the European Union, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Vietnam, the press freedom group said in a press release. Among them, apparently, is The Economist, which in its Dec. 6-12 issue carried a cover story titled ‘The King and Them” and gave what it called “the untold story of the palace’s role behind the collapse of Thai democracy” (although the story had been largely told repeatedly in Asia, and particularly by Asia Sentinel).

Although every site that was ordered blocked came under the lese majeste laws, FACT said that “It would appear, in fact, that the court did not examine each site before issuing its order but instead relied on the Ministry of Information and Communication’s judgment. Although we have not yet found the opportunity to examine each website censored, as in the past, an eclectic mix of censorship has been revealed resulting in overblocking of many benign webpages.”

Also blocked, FACT said, are weblogs referring to author Paul Handley's authoritative biography of Thailand's King Bhumibhol, The King Never Smiles, and its translation into Thai along with Thai Wikipedia entries. The book makes copious reference to the king’s involvement in Thailand’s political affairs for decades. Some 860 YouTube videos have also been blocked, far in excess of the blocking conducted by The Official Censor of the Military Coup. Some 200 pages mirroring those videos are also blocked, the organization said..

“Typically, web censorship in Thailand is conducted in secret,” FACT said. “We think there is a right to know inherent in a free society. We call for transparency and accountability in government and freedom of expression, freedom of communication and freedom of association as fundamental human rights.