Thailand's Massive Internet Censorship

Global Voices Advocacy (GVD), a global anti-censorship network of bloggers and online activists, has launched a shocking report that Thailand has blocked at least 113,000 websites deemed to pose a threat to national security.

With its objective to defend free speech online, Global Voices revealed that Thailand's Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) admitted to blocking 48,000 websites in May this year, 50,000 in June and July and adding 500 more per day. Asia Sentinel has been blocked intermittently in Thailand over stories critical of the political crisis in the country.

Meanwhile, Freedom against Censorship Thailand (FACT), whose website has also been blocked, conducted its own extensive testing across Thai Internet service providers (ISPs). It found that ISPs blocked at least a further 15,000. GVD has already criticized the government's policy on curbing freedom of media and called Thailand an "Internet Desert" approaching leaders' paranoia in Burma and North Korea.

Almost all blocked websites were accused of breaching Thailand's infamous lèse-majesté law.

Lèse-majesté, or the crime of injury to the royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen and regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison.

On top of this, the information ministry announced a blacklist of 200 persons banned from posting to the Internet. This restriction was undefined but presumably all sites bearing these names will be blocked. This list includes former Minister of the Prime Minister's Office and Thaksin's confidante Jakrapob Penkair, and Chulalongkorn University Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn. Early this month (July), the Department of Special Investigation, which handles cases involving plots to overthrow the monarchy, also set up nine teams to improve efficiency in dealing with the anti-monarchy network.

The Abhisit government has long battled with the so-called anti-monarchy movement. Dangerously, the battle has opened doors for lèse-majesté law to be abused, ironically by the royalists themselves. In July 2009, Laksana Kornsilpa, a critic of Thaksin, filed a lèse-majesté complaint against the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) entire board of 13 members for providing platform for anti-monarchy campaign. She referred to Jakrapob's controversial talk at the FCCT in August 2007. The content of his talk cannot be revealed since the revelation can be considered a breach of the lèse-majesté law.

Human rights groups have voiced their concerns about the arbitrary use of lèse-majesté. They say they believe the law has been employed as the government's weapon to silence the opposition. So far, it has effectively built up a climate of fear under which those who possess dissenting views now resort to practicing self-censorship as they express their political opinions.

The murky investigation/prosecution process has also added up to the intensity of fear. Nobody really knows about how many sets of blacklists the Thai authorities have been making. Who is indeed responsible for cases involving the violation of lèse-majesté law? The police? The DSI? The MICT? The Foreign Ministry (for the crime committed outside Thailand)? Or the Immigration Office?

The punishment is also getting harsher since the state authorities have defined the threat to monarchy so closely with the concept of national security.

"In Thailand, the monarchy is not only a symbolic institution. It is the pillar of national security," said Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, a former judge. "Whatever is deemed as affecting the monarchy must be treated as a threat to national security."

So far, the blocking of websites has further deepened the politicization of the monarchy and served to damage, not safeguard, the institution. Social critic and lèse-majesté case defendant Sulak Sivaraksa said: "The problem of abusing the lèse-majesté law is now utterly messy. The fact that leading world intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and others have petitioned to Abhisit to reform the law is a testimony to it."

Blocking websites will prove to be futile since the world of Internet is borderless. How many websites have to be closed down in order to protect national security? In reality, the government's latest move is likely to hinder its own effort to achieve reconciliation. The government may argue that some websites with malicious intent must be banned. But exploiting lèse-majesté law to undermine political opponents will further deepen social injustice and aggravate hatred that has prevailed in the Thai society.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is his personal view.