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Politics

Thai junta steps up internet censorship drive

Democracy campaigners claim tough new powers are 'ripe for abuse'

Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra talks to the waiting media as she arrives at the Supreme Court in Bangkok on Aug. 1.   © AP

BANGKOK -- After being finger printed and charged with sedition by Thailand's Police Technology Crime Suppression Division in early August, Pravit Rojanaphruk, a Thai journalist, stepped out of its Orwellian confines to make a dramatic point about censorship under military rule. He extended his arms and opened his ink-stained fingers for waiting photographers to snap. "This is the first time I was made to look like a criminal," he said.

Pravit was back with the police cyber sleuths on Aug. 18 to hear more charges stemming from a clutch of political comments, critical of the junta, posted on his Facebook page, which has 24,500 followers. But the 49-year-old columnist is defiant, despite the threat of a 14-year jail term for violating Article 116 of Thailand's criminal code, which covers sedition. "This is the price I have to pay for criticizing the junta," he said.

The junta, which overthrew an elected government in May 2014, is making growing use of Article 116 to crush dissent. Alleged offenders face a maximum of seven years in jail on each charge under the clause, which targets expressions or actions "likely to cause disturbances in the country." A week before Pravit was called in by the police, two former cabinet ministers in the pre-coup government were charged in relation to Facebook posts that criticized the country's political and economic environment under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who heads the junta and led Thailand's 12th successful coup.

According to iLaw, a Thai freedom of expression documentation center, more than 60 people have been charged with sedition since the 2014 coup -- a new and chilling benchmark for silencing dissent. The alleged offenders range from Thais who have made online statements against the junta to those distributing anti-junta leaflets. One had a created a Facebook post mocking Prayuth, while another was targeted for giving flowers to pro-democracy activists during a peaceful march in Bangkok, iLaw said. The International Federation for Human Rights, a Paris-based global rights watchdog, said that, "In most cases, the sedition charges stemmed from an overzealous, and sometimes inexplicable, application of Article 116."

Lese-majeste

The junta has also taken to task scores of Thais for violating Article 112 of the criminal code -- the lese-majeste law, which protects the reputations of senior members of the country's royal family. The law threatens violators with jail terms of three to 15 years for expressing views deemed to insult the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent. According to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights nearly 290 Thais have been investigated for expressing views that may have violated the law between 2014 and 2016. Other human rights groups say that 90 people have been arrested for alleged lese-majeste since the junta grabbed power, including 45 who were subsequently sentenced to prison terms of up to 35 years by military courts. Immediately before the coup, by contrast, only six people were in jail for lese-majeste.

By invoking articles 112 and 116, the junta has brought Facebook to the fore of its censorship efforts. The U.S.-based social media platform is widely used in Thailand, which has an estimated 47 million Facebook accounts for a population of 68 million people. Among them are hundreds of Thais who use the online outlet to vent their opinions about post-coup politics, forward anti-establishment messages and press the "like" icon to approve critical posts. "Social media is the new public sphere, but it is a Wild West for the military to control," Pravit said, chuckling.

The regime seems determined to continue to wield a big stick, claiming that posts on Facebook amount to a "national security threat." In the six months to June this year it asked Facebook to block 300 posts in Thailand, compared with requests relating to 80 posts between May 2014 and December 2016. "Facebook is not a threat, but the contents in Facebook are a threat," said Lt. Gen. Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, a government spokesman. "Social media is something we have to handle properly, and those responsible for security for the country will judge."

In line with this approach, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, an independent regulator, has taken on a new mission to force Facebook to conform to the lese-majeste laws. The NBTC has twice asked Facebook to remove contents critical of the monarchy, claiming it had legal authority. But after the social media outlet stood its ground -- removing some, but not all the disputed contents -- the NBTC retreated, dropping a threat to block access to Facebook. "Facebook has removed 1,039 of 2,556 URLs," Takorn Tantasith, secretary-general of the NBTC, told reporters in early August, referring to web pages that had been taken down between May and mid-July.

The regulator's demands for content suppression, together with an attempt to get Facebook to register in Thailand as a broadcasting company, or lose lucrative advertising revenue, reflect a change of tack from its pre-coup approach of declining to regulate Facebook. "Before, the NBTC was never interested in regulating Facebook, because it knew it had no authority to do so," Supinya Klangnarong, a former NBTC commissioner, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Now, the NBTC is attempting to define Facebook as a broadcaster by using the OTT (over-the-top-services) approach." Supinya added: "This way it will have authority to control Facebook." OTT refers to content that is distributed over the internet, bypassing traditional distribution channels.

"Last frontier"

This change of tack threatens to trigger a diplomatic spat. The Office of the United States Trade Representative, a U.S. agency that develops and coordinates U.S. international trade, commodity, and direct investment policies, has expressed concern over the regulator's tough talk, an issue that diplomatic sources say could be added to the agenda of U.S.-Thai bilateral discussions. "The USTR conveyed their views about the NBTC raising the OTT issue," a Thai government source confirmed.

But the regime has other avenues to silence Thais in cyberspace -- regarded by media rights campaigners as the "last frontier" for free speech in the country following the junta's success in neutering mainstream media outlets through a raft of post-coup edicts. Analysts point to powers in the revised Computer Crime Act, which became law in May, as a handmaiden for eager censors.

Article 14 of the revised act is very broad and ripe for abuse, they say, given that scores of Thais have already been charged since the coup with violating earlier computer crimes legislation. Article 14 targets purveyors of "false" and "distorted" information, said Kanathip Thongraweewong, director of the Institute of Digital Media Law at Bangkok's Kasem Bundit University. "The new legislation also puts pressure on service providers and social media platforms to remove or block content that violates the act. This will lead to more self-censorship," Kanathip said.

Analysts expect the new act to embolden the Army Cyber Center, headed by a general, and the Police Technology Crime Suppression Division, the lead agencies targeting critics of the junta. The digital economy ministry plans to spend 128.5 million baht ($3.87 million) in the second half of 2017 to invest in software capable of monitoring information shared online. In addition, the National Reform Steering Assembly, a junta-appointed body, recently approved the creation of a new center "which will monitor online media whose content allegedly violates 'public morals,'" said Kingsley Abbott, a senior international legal advisor at the Asia-Pacific office of the International Commission of Jurists, a global legal rights watchdog.

The junta's appetite for cyber control lays bare a blueprint to establish its authority in the new media world, fitting in with the "military's long-term desire to entrench its institutional supremacy," said Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai national security issues at Naresuan University in northern Thailand. "[The junta does not want to] leave cyber-war operations to other government arms, which might weaken military control over them," Chambers said.

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