Self-regulation seen as better way to protect cyber liberty in Thailand

Excessive use of defamation and lese majeste charges by opposing
political groups and authorities in Thailand to curb free
expression on the Internet has forced a coalition of Internet users
comprising media reformers, human rights campaigners, webmasters,
bloggers and operators of online news publications, to form a civic
network called the Thai Netizens Network, designed to promote and
protect cyber liberty.

The non-partisan group, officially launched on December 2, was a
spin-off of an earlier initiative called Freedom Against Censorship
in Thailand but its mission is much broader than its
predecessor's--that is, to campaign at the national policy level to
promote and protect netizens' rights, freedom of online media as
well as civic journalism, and at the same time to promote a
self-regulatory framework to ensure responsible use of internet.

According to the network's coordinator, Supinya Klangnarong, about
400 URLs have been banned over charges related to criminal
defamation and lese majeste pending the court's hearing. "The
problem is that cyber-crime police find it difficult to proceed
with these cases in court because they could not arrest the
suspected offenders," said Supinya.

Thai government put in place the Computer-Related Crime Bill in
2007, almost two decades after the Internet communication was
introduced into Thailand, in response to a proliferation not only
of indecent websites and blogs and rising computer crimes like
pornography, but also pictures, remarks and information deemed as
insulting to the monarchy or threats to national security.

But the network finds many articles in the laws problematic.
According to the group, Article 19 of the law gives cyber crime
officers too broad an authority to determine the offenses that
could allow an imposition of wrong judgment of the offenses and
exploitation by any group.

Article 15 of the law also overburdens web masters and ISP
providers as it requires them to heavily filter or self-censor what
might be defined as offenses under this law. They are also required
to keep electronic files of clients dating back to at least 90 days
since they posted into the system, causing a heavier load in their
database.

One of the group's prime tasks is to lobby for an amendment to the
one-year-old law to separate free expression from ordinary computer
crimes. "There should be a parameter or a definition of criminal
offenses specified under the anti-cyber crime bill. Expressing
opinion, right or wrong, should not be a criminal offense in the
first place," Supinya said.

The group will work closely with other media professionals and
other civil groups to improve the application of defamation laws to
ensure that free speech and press freedom are protected.

The group also called on all concerned to clearly define what
constitutes lese majeste so it would not be exploited out of
proportion to the extent that it undermines free speeches and free
and equal access to information.

From a few thousand at the start, the number of Internet users in
Thailand has grown to some 13 million users in 2007, according to a
survey conducted by the National Electronics and Computer
Technology Center (Nectec). It is estimated that the number of
users may have gone up to 15 million at present, accounting for
some 16 percent of the country's 64 million population.

In the past eight years, the Internet has become a vibrant and
alternative medium for debates on political reform and some
culturally-sensitive topics or taboo issues, including the role of
monarchy. The mainstream media has deliberately restrained itself
from openly discussing this latter topic. More and more newspapers
also go online as a way of gaining a wider audience as more people
especially the young turn to the Internet as a faster and
convenient medium of communication.

But the country's severe political rivalry between those who
support populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is
currently in exile abroad after being ousted from power in the
military coup on September 19, 2006, and those who are against him,
has a profound impact on free expression on the Internet in
particular, and press freedom in general. The two opposing
political camps have been waging a cyber war against each other,
exploiting the loose definition of lese majeste and loopholes in
the application of defamation laws to eliminate each other.

"Netizens are currently fearful of expressing their opinion since
whatever they post on the Internet could easily land them in jail,"
said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, manager of Prachathai.com, the
political and social online news website.

It is a culture among net users to hide their real identity. "But
disproportionate use of laws will drive them to a dark corner where
they would be more difficult to monitor," Chiranuch said.

While agreeing that freedom and responsibility should go hand in
hand, the Thai Netizens Network argues that responsibility can not
be enforced by the use of laws alone. It should rather be
encouraged and fostered by allowing the network itself to build
social relationship and norms among its members.

"The current political standoff shows the people's need to find an
outlet to express their opinion and seek information, without which
people are not informed enough to make their political judgment,"
according to Sarinee Archwanathakul, a committee member.

"Thai society should learn how to take opposing views. With
censorship imposed, people will not learn on their own how to
express properly their comments or opinions that will appeal to
other people. Nor they will learn how to separate sensible or
useful views from the others," said Sarinee who owns a blog herself.

"Instead of pointing out that someone is right or wrong, we want
parties concerned to look at the ultimate goal of the Internet,
which is to promote a healthy and participatory democracy," said
Sarinee, who owns a blog herself.

She said there are a lot more values that the Internet can
contribute to the democratization process - including open access
to information, freedom of participation, transparency, talent and
innovation, social equity and decentralization of authority.

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