Shuttering the Sites

As Thai web surfers might tell you, living under a military government is no fun. Since April, Thai Internet users looking to YouTube for their favorite lip-sync performances, stupid-human tricks, or political-protest videos have been getting a real eyeful. Not the glorious heap of trash and treasure that the video-sharing site usually offers, but the "green screen" that the country's Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) puts up when it blocks a site. Underneath a large logo of an eye, the Web site reads: "We're sorry, this website is inappropriate … If you have any feedback or wish to report any other inappropriate sites, please click on the eye above."

The naughty content that sparked the Ministry's ire was a video that covered a picture of widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej's face with graffiti and with images of feet, which Thais consider an impure part of the body. "It's a serious case of lèse-majesté," said MICT Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, and although YouTube's owner, Google, removed four of the 12 offending videos that cropped up, the site remains blocked in Thailand. Critics of the current government weren't convinced of the lèse-majesté justification, however, speculating that YouTube was blocked to prevent access to interviews in which former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a coup last September, defended his time in office.

For the average Internet user, the green screen offered no explanation, but it sent a clear message from the military government. And with the passing of new cybercrime legislation in May, the government is turning the message into law. The Bill on Computer-Related Offenses (which awaits the king's likely assent) grants broad powers to MICT officials to record and seize computer data and personal user-identification information, and to block information it deems a threat to national security. Penalties include up to five years of imprisonment and fines up to 100,000 baht (around $3,000, the approximate average annual income in Thailand).

The cybercrime law is just one more strike against democracy in Thailand, according to media activists in Thailand and Human Rights Watch. "The Internet is the greatest attempt at participatory democracy that we've ever had," says long-term Thai resident CJ Hinke, founder of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT). "And we've cut the pipe in Thailand." With its new cybercrime bill, its scuffles with YouTube and Google, and massive increases in blocked sites, Thailand seems to be emulating the "China model" of the Internet -- open to economic development, closed to free speech. This sort of censorship, accomplished with the collusion of international IT companies seeking emerging markets, could create a "virus of Internet repression," according to a new Amnesty International campaign on Internet censorship.

More locally, the cybercrime law -- the first law passed by the military government -- seems to bode ill for Thailand's political process. After the September coup, army officials reassured a worried public that they supported democracy and political reform, and would draft a new constitution and hold elections within a year's time. Since then, however, the Constitutional Court banned Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, barring him and his 110 party officials from participating in politics for five years. That court ruling came after months of political censorship: Since the September coup, the government's blocking of Web sites went up more than 400 percent, and journalists working in TV, radio, and film report a marked increase in cuts and control, nearly all of it justified under lèse-majesté law, national-security concerns, and charges of offending Buddhism. Thailand has dropped to No. 127 out of 194 countries in the Freedom House's press-freedom rankings, compared to No. 29 in 2000. "We thought that censorship was bad during the Thaksin period, but the [new government] is attacking press freedoms in a way Thaksin never did," said Supinya Klangnarong, a media-reform advocate and co-organizer of Freedom Against Censorship Thailand.

As Supinya noted, pre-coup Thailand wasn't a lost Eden of press freedom. Dubbed the "Berlusconi of Bangkok," Thaksin swept elections in 2001 and 2005 on media-savvy campaigns. In 2000 Thaksin's family's company, Shincorp, purchased a controlling share in the country's only independent TV channel -- the perfect perch from which to peddle his CEO image, which he cleverly joined with populist policies for the poor, including village development plans and a universal health-care policy. Thaksin and his business allies also threatened to yank their private advertising from publications that questioned his policies, pulled strings to remove recalcitrant editors and writers, and, most notoriously, filed a 400-million baht ($11.7 million) lawsuit against media advocate Supinya after she stated that the business interests of Thaksin's family benefited from his government policies. (Supinya was acquitted after a two-year battle in the courts.)

Thaksin's policies and his business jockeying alienated an already suspicious upper class, and he was rumored to have offended the monarchy with his arrogance and his successful wooing of Thailand's rural poor -- traditionally the king's most loyal base. So by the time the prime minister sold his family's $1.9 billion telecom business to the Singapore government's investment arm, the conditions were ripe for revolt. Clad in the yellow shirts affiliated with the Thai monarch, critics held protest after protest beseeching the king to remove Thaksin. They called themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, seemingly oblivious to the irony of their name, given that their ad hoc coalition was composed largely of Bangkok intelligentsia asking a monarch to depose a democratically elected leader. Anti-Thaksin videos and satirical Chinese political plays flourished, and restaurants all over town were running out of gourd-leaf stir-fry -- ordering "fahk maew" allowed diners to enjoy a tasty dish and swear in English at the prime minister, often called "Maew," a derogatory ethnic slur for the Hmong people who live near Thaksin's Chiang Mai hometown.

The tanks rolled into Bangkok on September 19, 2006, although the coup turned out to be a bloodless one. A day after the Royal Thai Army seized the capital, junta leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin announced that the king had recognized him as the head of the interim Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy. The royal imprimatur brought anti-Thaksin hordes to the streets to offer food to the soldiers; tourists posed by tanks decorated with royal yellow ribbon. Underneath the Disneyland veneer, however, was something darker -- the junta had declared martial law, suspended the constitution, and disbanded the Parliament and the Cabinet.

The coup government had branded itself as a cure to Thaksin's corruption, immorality, and irreverence to the king, and its members took their watchdog job seriously. Armed troops were stationed in TV and radio stations. Those media outlets that were not occupied, like 300 community–radio stations in Thaksin strongholds in the North, were told to suspend broadcasts entirely. International media did not escape the Council's chokehold: Four days after the coup, the interim government declared it would "urgently retaliate against foreign reporters whose coverage has been deemed insulting to the monarchy."

Foreigners weren't the only ones asking questions about the coup. In the hours after Thaksin's overthrow, the message boards at the daily independent Web newspaper Prachatai lit up with questions concerning the possible connection between the king and the coup, according to editor Chuwat Rerksirisuk. "Thai society has not been open about these sorts of questions at all," said Chuwat. "The media … censors itself, and doesn't really include the opinions of the opposition."

Within a few months, officials from the national police forces, the military, and the MICT began to call Prachatai offices suggesting that the organization censor itself or face a shutdown. Prachatai always had a policy of deleting ad hominem attacks, including those on the monarch, says Chuwat. But the publication refuses to censor other comments and faces escalating official pressure. Despite this, Chuwat is holding firm.

Other sites haven't been so resistant or so lucky. According to FACT's analysis of the MICT's secret block list, 11,329 Web sites are blocked in the country, and 90 new Web sites were blocked in May -- each of them political in nature. Minister Sittichai denies the rampant censorship: To the press, he declares he hasn't blocked more than 30, all of them pornographic, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Some of the Web sites have fought back. After the staff of Midnight University, an alternative educational center based in the northern city of Chiang Mai, held a demonstration against the coup government, their Web site was blocked on September 29, cutting off thousands of articles and discussions boards. The staff members launched a media blitz, contacting Thai and international journalists and academics. As a result, said rector Somkiat Tangnamo, they succeeded in wresting an order from the Administrative Court to unblock the Web site.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand's most prominent filmmaker, is also refusing to stand down. The film-censorship committee decreed that the Cannes–award winning director's Syndromes and a Century needed four cuts -- scenes including a monk playing a guitar, a doctor drinking on the job, a doctor and his girlfriend kissing in the hospital, and a monk playing with a remote-controlled toy. After Apichatpong declined to cut his film, the censorship committee refused to return the work. "The censorship committee doesn't see films as personal art or a reflection of reality. They think of it as … a tourist brochure or propaganda," said Apichatpong. The filmmaker is at a stalemate with the censors -- his film undistributed but uncut. But international media attention and pressure around his case is growing every day.

Cases like Apichatpong's are as rare as self-censorship has become epidemic. This is not surprising in light of ever-expanding government intrusion. Even as they added to their Web-site block list, the generals sent out messages to millions of cell-phone users the weekend after the Constitutional Court banned Thaksin's party, advising them to "exercise your judgment about whether to attend anti-government protests." The eye on the green screen, it appears, sees far beyond the Web.

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