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28 November 2023

Threats to media freedom worry Thai online community

A Thai office worker looks at prachatai.com website on the screen of a computer in Bangkok. (AFP) 

Frustrated with what she saw as corporate influence and political bias in Thailand's print media, Chiranuch Premchaiporn helped launch a news website in 2004 to try and filter out the spin.

For a while, it worked as thousands of people visited Prachatai.com every day to read stories they did not see in newspapers and to air their views on the website's lively chat boards.

But everything changed after a 2006 coup ousted Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and launched more than two years of highly-charged political turmoil.

"After the coup for a month I got contact from the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Ministry warning us about some of the comments on our web board," said Chiranuch.

Since then, she has been summoned by police eight times to answer questions about content on her site, while 20 pages on Prachatai.com have been blacklisted and blocked by the authorities in the last five months.

Activists say the blossoming of blogs and internet chat rooms poring over the kingdom's tumultuous politics have unnerved the authorities, prompting a crushing campaign of censorship to suppress dissenting voices.

The government installed by the coup-makers enacted a law in 2007 policing the Internet, and the current administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appears to be implementing it with vigour.

More than 4,800 webpages have been blocked since March last year, an ICT official told AFP, notionally because they contain content deemed insulting to Thailand's deeply-revered royal family.

The monarchy's role in the recent political upheaval remains one of the most sensitive subjects in the kingdom, with few local newspapers willing to touch the issue.

"The Thai media is now being completely made tame. They don't dare report lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) cases or any anti-government positions," said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor.

"So people express themselves through the Internet, and the government wants to try and put a stop to this."

Abhisit came to power in a parliamentary vote on December 15, 2008 after ongoing protests by the People's Alliance for Democracy (Pad) helped topple the Thaksin-linked ruling party less than a year after it won elections.

The Pad openly claimed the support of the monarchy, while critics of Abhisit say his Democrat Party enjoys the backing of the powerful military.

All the intrigue provided grist for the thriving chatrooms.

"It encouraged people to talk more and the Internet is the most liberal space in Thailand," said Supinya Klangnarong of media group Thai Netizen.

Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Thailand has more than 14 million internet users, and in January put out a statement asking if Thailand was the world's "new enemy of the internet".

They deplored the recent arrest of one user after authorities claimed to have matched his computer's Internet address to one used to post online messages deemed defamatory to the monarchy.

At the same time, analysts have said that a record number of investigations are being conducted into lese majeste cases, which carry a jail term of up to 15 years.

Many of them have targeted the media.

Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was jailed for three years on January 19 for defaming King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in a short passage in a 2005 novel.

Political analyst Giles was on January 20 officially charged with lese majeste in connection with a book he wrote about the putsch.

"They are really turning the clock back with a medieval-style witch-hunt going on, and you don't have any transparency," Giles told AFP.

Three issues of British news magazine The Economist have been pulled from the shelves by the Thai distributor in an act of self-censorship because they contained articles about the Thai royals and lese majeste.

When questioned in December about censorship, Abhisit said Thailand was not the only country which blocked websites carrying material deemed offensive.

"The details of which contents are blocked are different according to the traditions and the historical factors of each society," he told AFP.

Supinya says that they have asked many times for a list of the banned web pages, but the authorities refuse to release it.

The communications ministry, meanwhile, has announced it is setting up a "war room" to police the Internet, claiming that thousands more web pages insult the monarchy and therefore threaten national security.

Activists say, however, that the government's policy will eventually backfire as Thais will find an outlet to discuss topics crucial to their country's future.

"You block one, ten more websites will happen," said Chiranuch.