As a part of our ‘looking forward to 2012’ series, Prachatai interviewed CJ Hinke, freedom activist and founder of FACT – Freedom against Censorship Thailand - on the situation of freedom in Thailand, internet freedom in particular.
According to information from FACT and the research NGO iLaw - Internet Law Reform Dialogue, Thai government has since April 2010 blocked a total of 777,286 web pages (as of December 28, 2011) and spent a total of 950 million baht in two years on this operation alone. To sum up, each web page costs 1,210 baht of taxpayers’ money to block.
Photo credit: Kwanravee Wangudom
What is the trend and direction you see for internet freedom in Thailand for 2012, compared to 2011? Will it be bright or will it be doomed?
Well, in 2006 when we founded the Internet Freedom against Censorship in Thailand, censorship was not something that was talked in Thai society. No one was discussing this even in the universities. It was pretty much a closed topic. People really did not see that this censorship had very much impact on their lives. But as soon as we brought up the issue, it seemed like the whole topic had been dammed up in Thai minds and suddenly the flood gate was opened and everybody was talking about censorship. And it became a hot issue because at that time the military coup government ordered censorship of the internet.
So this is one of the things they considered to be most dangerous to their power, the internet, because the internet fosters participatory democracy, the discussion of public views. It forms a public conversation so we all get to talk to each other. The government is very afraid of that. Government is afraid of allowing us to talk to each other and that it’s going to destabilize their power base.
Now it did not take very long after that for the military coup government to block YouTube completely for 7 months and that further woke Thai people up to internet censorship. Following quickly after that, of course, was the banned book ‘The King Never Smiles’ by Paul Handley. It is interesting because the book is readily available online and the Thai government tried almost everything it can do to block the English version. However, Thai translations are all over the internet and none of them are ever banned, despite the fact that the Thai-American Joe Gordon was sentenced to prison for linking to that. And Joe Gordon’s case is very interesting to me because this is the first case in which the court expanded third-party intermediate liability to include such basic functions of the internet as hyper-linking. So originally he was charged with only two things: he was charged with hyper-linking to three chapters and the introduction to The King Never Smiles from his blog and he was charged of being the Norporchor USA’s webmaster. Now you might remember that only a few months earlier, before Joe’s arrest, Thantawut (Thaweewarodom) was also charged with being the Norporchor USA’s webmaster and given thirteen years. So who is the real webmaster? How can you charge two people for being the same thing at the same time? It’s completely ridiculous.
So by the time Joe Gordon got to the court, he was charged not with hyper-linking but he was charged with being ‘the translator’ of The King Never Smiles. So this was a very subtle shift by the government and it made it quite interesting to me. Let’s just say that hyper-linking to lèse majesté content is like repeating lèse majesté. Even if you didn’t create it, it is lèse majesté in itself. In order to determine that, you will have to read those three chapters and that introduction to know if there was any lèse majesté in it. You just can’t say, “well, The King Never Smiles is a bad book and therefore linking to it is lèse majesté”. That just doesn’t make sense. So essentially, the government is trying to flimflam us into a set of ‘false beliefs’ without actually looking at the facts.
Another good example of this in the court is that we’re not actually allowed to detail the substances of the charges. For example, in Chiranuch Premchaiporn’s trial, one of the messages contains the phrases ‘the blind father’ and ‘the blue whale’. One is suppose to be able to instantly determine that these refer to the King and Queen. Now I am very on top of this issue, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of the whole censorship and lèse majesté issue and that is not so obvious to me. So in fact, yes, the posters might have meant that but we can’t determine it. But it’s supposedly lèse majesté to repeat it. So in fact I think that we need to look at the actual substance of the charges. We can’t just say “Oh, this person sent four text messages and therefore they are guilty” but we can’t tell you what it is! That doesn’t make sense!
The rule of law is a precision machine. Laws have to be very precise or you end up putting the wrong people in jail or even the wrong people to death. So laws have to be extremely precise. And unless we are willing to evolve into a true democracy which is governed by the rule of law and government is willing to make full disclosure to the public, we don’t have a democracy here. So the danger in my reading of history, is that when countries slide towards dictatorship, they do so in an instant. The Khmer Rouge, maybe a couple of months. The military dictatorship in Burma, maybe at least six weeks. The fall of monarchy in Lao, three months.
So in fact I think what we are seeing here is a strikingly remarkable parallel to the fall of our neighbours to dictatorship. And so we look today at Burma opening up, in some small regard - they still have tens of thousands of political prisoners. When we look at Thailand and we are repeating the same mistakes, the rise of the military, and the cosiness of the government with the military, the government relying on the military as it did during the period of emergency powers when the government created the military agency CRES. So in fact we see reliance on the military. By giving the military more power, what that means is that you risk them taking over and you risk becoming a military state. I think that most Thai people are not even aware of that.
So the military in guidance is more obvious in Thailand than other countries, you think?
Yeah, very much so. The government is very careful not to do or say anything against the military and I think that they use the military as a big part of its power base. So in fact a lot of what is regarded as lèse majesté, particularly coming from The King Never Smiles, is the fact the King has established a relationship with the military and it has been a cosy relationship. My personal opinion is that if the monarchy did not have that relationship with the military, the monarchy would not be as strong and perhaps would not even have survived up to the present day. So it has been sort of a symbiotic relationship and I don’t think it’s a bad one either.
But all governments rely to a certain extent of fear-mongering, whether it’s fear of terrorism or war on drugs or whatever. They try to keep us scared and that keeps the public in line. I think that this movement that is developing is not what the government says it is. The government thinks that there is a conspiracy to topple the monarchy and I don’t think that’s true at all. I would say that overwhelmingly the people that I know who are freedom of expression activists have no interest in getting rid of the monarchy. In fact most of us see the monarchy as a very stabilising and unifying force in Thai society. We don’t see anything wrong with it. Every society needs a symbol, needs a figurehead and the monarchy provides that in every country where there is still a monarchy. I don’t think that really has much to do with our day-to-day lives.
So in fact there is no movement to overthrow the monarchy, there is no republican sentiment in Thailand. In fact rhetorically what would be the differences if we have a president rather than a prime minister? It would make absolutely no different to the way Thai society functions whether there is a monarchy or not. But the monarchy is a very potent symbol. So I think it is very important that now we make censorship a hot issue, and in a same way, Freedom against Censorship in Thailand was the first organization that started to talk about lèse majesté as a censorship issue. Everybody was afraid to talk about the issue. And when we broke that dam the flood gates were opened and people were starting to talk about lèse majesté.
Also you are talking about the military evidently becoming more dominant in Thai politics right? But that’s probably more obvious since the 2006 coup. In terms of 2011, we have the new government, what are your thoughts on the potential of the new government to step out of that shadow?
Well, I think the American anarchist Emma Goldman was right that if voting could change anything, it would be illegal. I don’t have any faith whatsoever in elected government. I don’t think voting equals democracy. Participation is what democracy is all about and that’s why government is so afraid of the internet because it is participatory democracy. The internet enables the conversations among us.
So in fact I think the present government has done itself the greatest service to Thai society by alienating and rejecting its power base which were the Red Shirts. When I say I have no interest in whatsoever electoral politics, I have no interest similarly in mass movements. I think that the Red Shirt movement or the Yellow Shirt movement, they might make people feel good but they are not actually going to change Thai society. What is going to change Thai society is the conversation, it’s us all talking about it.
The Red Shirts of course elected the Pheu Thai government but the Red Shirts were talking about the ‘Amart’ and the ‘Prai’ and in fact you could not regard Taksin or the Prime Minister as ‘Prai’. They are not peasants, they are rich fat cats and therefore by definition, ‘Amart’. So in fact the Red Shirts have it wrong.
So that kind of points out the trends on internet freedom next year?
I think it’s going to get worse and worse, actually. It’s interesting because under the Democrat government and under the Pheu Thai, we have two deputy Prime Ministers who are both essentially gangsters. They are political henchmen; they are strong men who throw their weight around. And if you notice both of their jobs are to censor the internet, to keep us from talking to each other. Now Chalerm (Yubamrung) is talking about spending 400 million baht on this new technology to block foreign websites. Now one of the things that FACT immediately did was to write to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the President of the European Union to demand that foreign governments do not sell this technology to Thailand. Because if they talk of internet freedom, then how can they allow western countries to sell this kind of technology to Thailand to repress our internet freedom?
So I think it’s going to get way worse. And I see such disturbing parallels to us becoming a very regulated society like Burma. Maybe not like the Khmer Rouge but a lot of parallels to Burma and the rise of military dictatorship.
It’s quite scary, huh?
Yeah, it is. Most foreigners in Thailand don’t talk about politics at all particularly free speech issues because they are afraid of getting kicked out of Thailand. But Thailand is my home, my family is here, my career is here, and I don’t expect ever to live anywhere else. So if they are going to lock me up for free speech I suppose they’ve got to lock me up. But they are not going to lock me up for any crime because there is no crime in free speech.
So you said you don’t believe in mass movements but you believe in the conversation, free speech. Can you elaborate?
I’ll give you an example of that. In the period of the Emergency Decree, when the emergency powers were lifted on December the 23nd 2010, that should have reset the whole censorship agenda back to zero. There should have been nothing censored anymore on the internet, that should be the end of it. But in fact from the period of emergency up until now not one single website has been unblocked. So in fact there is a real hidden agenda there.
You see the foundation of any kind of progressive thinking in society is an absence of censorship. If you can say anything, if all speech is free, then you encourage a population with discrimination. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it. That’s the real censorship. If something really pisses you off, a cartoon about your prophet, for example, or cartoon about your King pisses you off, for god’s sake, don’t look at them! Why are you working yourself up for nothing! It doesn’t make any sense.
So I would like to see us start again at zero and see what level of censorship society really needs to function. We might decide that we don’t have any. You look at the United States as the big Bastille of rights and free speech, of course there is censorship in the United States, there is lots of mainstream censorship in the United States, there is lots of internet censorship in terms of copyright and child pornography and so on and so forth. In fact I don’t think that you have any society that doesn’t have any censorship but I think Thai society has gone overboard. Essentially they are telling all of us that we are too stupid to figure out the internet on our own. We need a babysitter in the form of government and I really resent the fact that government wants to be the police for mind morals. They don’t deserve to be the moral police. They are no more holy than the rest of us.
So what’s your latest demand on 112 then?
Again, I think that we are far too sensitive. What is always brought up in this whole debate is “The King is our Father, the Queen is our mother”. Wonderful, that’s great! O.K. now you think about your own parents, think about your own father and mother and somebody insults your own father and your own mother in the newspaper or on the internet, are you going to get a gun and shoot them? Are you going to try to put them in jail? It’s absolutely lunatic. So my advice for people is “grow a skin!” Don’t be so sensitive, I mean, it’s just words. When we grow up as kids, there is at the school yard ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ So in fact don’t be so sensitive to this. You look at the YouTube videos that were satire or parody of the royals, it’s just complete nonsense. Why should we think they are important? We are giving them far too much credit and I think what government has done itself in a way is destabilising the monarchy. Because by making this issue such an enormous elephant in the corner, they’re somehow thinking that they’re protecting the monarchy.
I certainly heard the conspiracy theory going around these days that in fact government has a reverse agenda that in fact government is trying to destabilise the monarchy by getting us all talking about lèse majesté. Then you think about a learned judge, an educated man, who gives some old man 20 years in prison, surely he’s thought far enough to realise that there is going to be a backlash. It’s inconceivable that he did not even consider that he just thought about the punishment. It’s inconceivable to me. So in fact I would definitely say that learned judge is guilty of lèse majesté.
But that also brings me to the fact that in Thailand it’s considered to be contempt to criticise a court’s decision and that’s absolutely wrong. Judges are people; they are not gods and in fact it’s a vital part of free expression that we are able to shape the legislative function, the lawmaking, to shape the judiciary function, and to shape the executive function as well so that politicians actually are forced to act in our name, that judges are forced to do what the public wants.
So what exactly is the demand of the FACT on lèse majesté ste? Abolish, reform or what?
Repeal is a better word because that’s more precise in law. So FACT demands a repeal of the lèse majesté law. I’m presently aware of at least ten public initiatives against the lèse majesté law and the Computer Crimes act and I’m a part of maybe six or seven of them. The ones that are specifically Red Shirt I don’t sign on to because I’m not a Red Shirt. Sure, some of the stuff of the Red Shirts is great, some of the stuff of the Yellows is great, but I’m not either of those. I’m only on free speech, I’m only on censorship.
So in fact we demand repeal of the lèse majesté law and the repeal of the Computer Crimes Act. The Computer Crimes Act is something quite different because before there was a Computer Crimes Act, there must have been computer crimes. You only enact a law when there are crimes for the law to combat but in fact all of the things that the Computer Crimes act calls ‘crimes’ were adequately dealt with in the criminal code. For example, pornography, gambling, drugs, all of these things have already been dealt with and in fact censorship does not deal with the root of the problem. For instance, the problem is not pornography, the problem is abuse of women and there are adequate laws to deal with that. So you don’t start at the top. You don’t say “Look, we can’t look at this because it results from the abuse of women and therefore it must be censored.” You go after the perpetrators of the abuse of women or the perpetrators of online gambling or whatever. You don’t start with the internet. You start with the problems in society.
One of the things that I’m partially agreed about is the fact that the Ministry of Public Health has blocked 117 online pharmacies. The reason they blocked these Thai online pharmacies is because these pharmacies offer the morning after pill and the morning after pill is illegal in Thailand. However, Thailand has the second largest population of unwanted teenage pregnancies in the world after the United States and also we have 120,000 teenage pregnancies in Thailand. We have 200,000 in total of unplanned pregnancies but 120,000 of that is teenagers. So the government made abortions illegal, made abortion information illegal, and made the morning after pill illegal. So rather than giving young women the means to deal with unwanted pregnancies which basically ruin their lives, it decides to block the means to find out the information. And so in fact all of us are going to have to deal with all these unwanted children, 120,000 unwanted children a year. You and I are paying for this, society is paying for this, education, healthcare, so on and so forth right? We are all paying for this and we have to deal with the societal problems that will occur because we have all these unwanted children in the next generation. This is going to be a huge problem for Thai society that could be solved by birth control but it’s not because we have the government acting as moral police. So in fact government could have sex education in school, government could have reliable access to birth control information for students. There could be access to abortion, perhaps not as freely as it was in the Soviet Union or in China. In fact it should not be considered to be morally corrupt to have an abortion or having a morning after pill.
So going back to lèse majesté, how would you respond to the people that say “Oh, it’s there to protect the Monarchy and to abolish it means you want to overthrow the monarchy”?
That’s complete nonsense. I think that any leader survives on their own nerve. I think that King Bhumibol has walked on a razor edge for 60 years and done a pretty good job of it, that’s my personal opinion. I personally have nothing against the Monarchy but the lèse majesté law is being enforced so strictly because of the next King, because of the succession. So in fact that they will appear to be loyal to charge people with lèse majesté and censor the internet and so they would appear to be loyal to the next King.
For 2011, if you could name one person or more, Thais or foreigners, to become a person of the year in your field, who would you name and why?
I would probably name Sor Sivalak. I’m very close to Sor Sivalak and I think that he has done more to stand up to political power. You don’t need to agree with what he is all about, about what he said. And it’s not at all about lèse majesté despite the fact that he has been charged with lèse majesté four times, despite the fact that his books have been banned for lèse majesté, it’s not about that at all. But the whole idea of, he calls it: “Socially engaged Buddhism”, the whole idea of social engagement in general means that you rely on yourself and your own conscience and I think that’s the most important part, to be unafraid that you can actually act on your conscience without being afraid.
So I think if you contrast the two marches that occurred within the same week, the fearlessness walk from Victory Monument to Rachaprasong which was done in complete silence with great respect and then you contrast the people who showed up at the US embassy and the United Nations with big signs with a bunch of cursing: “Ambassador Kenney shut up!” or “You pricks”, it’s a question of respect for other people’s opinion and people’s expression. It’s all about respect. And the reason that government censors us is because it does not respect the public. Government is not respecting us, that’s why I have no faith in electoral politics. Same old story every time, no matter who is elected they do it the same old way and you have to realise that most of the people in the government are digital dinosaurs, they have no idea how the internet works.
There was a big story about Thai bureaucrats who were only supposed to use the government’s computers for the e-mail and they couldn’t figure it out. They couldn’t keep the server running so everybody is still has hotmail! They’re not even sophisticated enough to have gmail which actually filters the spam! So they’re dinosaurs, they’re technological dinosaurs.
And also if you could name the events or the incident of this year that is considered a turning point that has a lot of implications on freedom for Thailand, what would you name?
I think that the rise of a non-violent leader in the Red Shirts is probably the most important development following the killings at Rachaprasong. Now the killings at Rachaprasong woke us up once again for the first time since 1992 that the Thai government was willing to shoot its own citizens on the street, woke us up again that things never changed! Government always does things the same way, the censorship, the shooting people on the street.
So the rise of non-violent activists likes Sombat who is very much in the mould incidentally with Sor Sivalak, to me, when you contrast Sombat with Arisman, you see that there is somebody who is willing to listen to people, take the people’s needs into account, actually respect the public, respect the constituencies. Now I really hope for Sombat’s sake that he is never elected to political office because I think it would ruin it. But in fact I think he is a very strong leader in Thai society, I think he is one of the people that I look up to.
The other interesting development, I like the fact that Supinya was named to the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Council. Two things of course can happen when somebody gets into that position: they can either be coopted or corrupted, or they can quietly start to change the fundamental power structure of the organization to incorporate free speech and I certainly hope that she does so. I know that she got a lot of criticism from freedom of expression activists but I support her completely in doing this. There is somebody who knows the value of freedom of expression and now they are in the position of some influence to government to actually put that into practice and show established Thai bureaucrats and politicians why freedom of expression is important. Because I think most of them haven’t even thought about it.