Virtual Reality Bites

BANGKOK – For someone facing charges that could have her spending as much as 50 years behind bars, Chiranuch Premchaiporn looks calm and collected. On a July afternoon at the cramped office of prachatai.com here in downtown Bangkok, Chiranuch is even all smiles while she entertains a visitor who is asking her all kinds of questions about the trouble her website has gotten her into. Yet, she also makes it clear she and her colleagues are not taking the charges lightly. They are, Chiranuch and her colleagues say, an affront to the freedom of speech and of expression.

In court last 31 May, Chiranuch officially denied the 10 counts of Computer Crime Act violations Thai authorities had charged her with. She was able to post bail, which is why she is still able to talk to visitors in her own office. Her case, however, is being seen as affecting not only her and the six-year-old prachatai.com, where she holds the position of website administrator, but also other Thai netizens. And as ASEAN heads towards forming a community in five years, many observers are saying the prachatai.com case may have an impact as well on how the peoples of the region will be using the Internet to interact with one another.

This early, ASEAN is already talking about putting together an information, communication, and technology infrastructure that would ease online connectivity among member states. But that could take some doing. At present just some 20 percent of the region’s population of 600 million have Internet access. Web penetration also varies across countries, with Burma having less than one percent of its population able to go online while Brunei has almost 90 percent of its people with access to the Net. More importantly, cyber regulations vary widely from state to state, with those either under one-party rule or long dominated by a particularly powerful group or individual having the strictest online laws. In such a situation, a free-flowing exchange of information and opinion among the citizens of ASEAN member-states can only be compromised and subjected to a slew of limitations.

For sure, the recent restrictions in Thailand regarding the Net aren’t inviting confidence among the advocates of freedom of information and expression. Up until a few years ago, this country was among those at the other end of the cyber-regulation spectrum. But since Parliament passed the 2007 Computer-Related Offences Commission Act (better known as the Computer Crime Act), Thai authorities have shut down thousands of websites and have filed charges against several of this country’s citizens for alleged online offences. Early last year, a young oil-rig mechanic was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment after a court found him guilty of lèse majesté for a video he had posted on YouTube. In addition, the government itself says it blocked 10,000 websites in 2009 alone.

Thailand is hardly the only one among the democratic nations in the region where authorities are now trying to rein in the freewheeling nature of the Net. In the Philippines and Indonesia, recent sex-video scandals have also prompted attempts by legislators to impose regulations on the Net that, some observers say, could easily lead to censorship benefiting only those in power. But while opposition to cyber regulations has had Philippine and Indonesian authorities dithering over whether or not they should push through with these, Thai officials have had no qualms over implementing the Computer Crime Act.

Fighting colours in cyberspace

Then again, Thailand had been under temporary military rule when the law was implemented three years ago. Several months earlier, a military coup had abruptly ended the rule of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had successfully courted the rural folk but who had grown more and more unpopular with the urban elite. Yet if the military had thought Thaksin’s ouster would unite what had become a society divided into those who were for the populist premier and those who were against him, it was quickly proven wrong. In fact, the Computer Crime Act would be seen by many as a means of tamping down growing dissent among Thais. To complicate matters, even the royal family – perceived by some as being sympathetic to the so-called ‘yellow’ faction that was anti-Thaksin – would be dragged into some of the debates, particularly those in cyberspace.

The bickering among the ‘yellows’ and the ‘red shirts’ who were Thaksin supporters would only worsen. And when the yellows led by the Democrat Party eventually took over the reins of government, the red shirts took to the streets. Apparently, many also took to cyberspace, which had become a source of refuge for Thais who had begun seeing the local mainstream media as leaning towards the royalist – and therefore ‘yellow’ – camp. But they were followed there by the yellows, and fights were soon breaking out in social networking sites and elsewhere in cyberspace.

It was, unfortunately, a development that could not be ignored. After all, as media lawyer Sinfah Tunsawaruth and rights advocate Toby Mendel observe in an analysis published just this May on the Computer Crime Act, “The law came into force at a time when the Internet had already established itself as a popular means of communication, especially for urban, educated Thai people.”

Sinfah and Mendel note that by 2008, there were 13.4 million Internet users in Thailand, or five times more the 2000 figure. Today, aside from visiting news- and non-news-oriented websites, Thai netizens are creating and reading blogs and web boards, as well as using social networks such as Hi5, Facebook, and Twitter.

Chiranuch herself had been attracted to the Web far earlier. In 2004, she had quit her job at a non-profit organisation to establish prachathai.com, with the aim of making it a source of unbiased information. It has since become known for its exposés on the wrongdoings of government officials, as well as hard-hitting posts on the quality of Thai intellectuals and the instability of the Thai political system.

On 6 March 2009, though, members of the Bangkok police’s Crime Suppression Division arrested Chiranuch right at the prachathai.com premises. They were holding her responsible for alleged lèse majesté statements posted on the prachathai web board by a reader sometime in late 2008. Weeks later, Chiranuch would face nine more similar charges, each one corresponding to a comment posted on prachathai from April to June 2008.

The writer of the supposedly offensive posts had also been arrested and charged in 2008; his case is still pending. The posts have long since been removed by prachathai. Yet this May, authorities shut down prachathai.com, allegedly because of comments posted that were “threats to national security”. No other details were given regarding the closure of the popular site.

Keeping the Net under control

“The Internet,” write Sinfah and Mendel, “allows for a freer flow of information due to the fact that it is more difficult for the government to control. It also offers alternative sources of news from the rather conservative Thai traditional mass media. The Internet also provides a public forum for ordinary citizens, who do not have access to the established media, to express their views and opinions.”

Obviously, though, the Computer Crime Act is now making it easier for the government to control the Net in Thailand – with the country’s worsening political polarisation apparently its main motive for doing so. And with opposition to the current administration (led by the yellows) seen as being ‘anti-royal’, observers have noted that lèse majesté has become the most common offence authorities have cited against those they have haled into court.

Lèse majesté was already a crime in Thailand long before anyone thought of the Computer Crime Act or even before the World Wide Web came into being. Under the Thai Penal Code of 1957, anyone found guilty of defaming the king, queen, heir apparent, or regent could be sentenced to a prison term of three to 15 years.

The same crime would later be included in Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act, along with threats to national security. But Time Chuastapanasiri, senior researcher at the think tank Media Monitor, echoes other observers in saying that the government appears to have “failed to define clearly” what it means by “national security” and “lèse majesté”.

Chiranuch herself comments, “It’s quite embarrassing because government security is not (the same as) national security.”

Rights advocates have taken issue as well with provisions in the law that holds Internet service providers (ISP) liable for content on their servers that falls under Section 14. The law does require knowledge on the part of the ISP regarding the offensive material for it to be liable, but as the case of Chiranuch shows, authorities seem to think the burden of proof lies with the accused.

Yet another feature in the law that rights advocates find objectionable is the power it gives state authorities to shut down or block websites that they deem objectionable or unlawful. According to some observers, the government has interpreted this largely as anything that is critical of it. Under the current state of emergency declared by the Abhisit administration, it is the Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) that acts as cyber-monitor, although it is still the Ministry of Information and Computer Technology (MICT) that implements the law. During the most recent crackdown against the reds, the MICT was blocking URLs at a clip of 500 a day on average, while one media report says that about 190 websites have been blocked by 16 April, most of them broadcasting red-shirt protests.

“(The government) uses the emergency decree to silence different points of view,” remarks Chiranuch. “They shouldn’t exercise power like that. But they (do) because they cannot tolerate (dissent) or they don’t feel confident enough.”

“In a democratic system,” she adds, “the government should be like an organisation that people can criticise.”

An intolerance for other views

Some rights advocates now worry that other nations in the region would use the Thai Computer Crime Act as a template for their own cyber-restricting laws. But even Time is among those who concede that it is also the lack of media literacy that has led to situations in which authorities believe they need to intervene. Just last 15 May, the popular web board pantip.com decided to shut itself down because it feared that the escalating word war on it between the ‘yellows’ and the ‘reds’ was threatening social harmony.

“Many Thai people do not use the Internet in a good way,” says Time. “If they believe a trend, they just follow without careful analysis. They use social networks the way they watch TV. They watch because they want to see what they want, and if they cannot see what they want, they change (the channel) or turn off (the TV).”

Prasong Lertratnawisute, president of the Thai Journalists Association, thinks part of the problem is the anonymity provided to users of the Net. “You can (talk) about freedom, but you need responsibility,” he says. “You should correctly identify yourself on the Net if you attack politicians. People refuse their responsibility because they don’t use their real name, and nobody knows them.”

Sheer intolerance for disparate views, however, may be the bigger problem, with the government not the only one guilty of it. Take the case of 17-year-old Withawat Thaokhamlue, who made no effort to hide his identity when he criticised Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s handling of the red-shirt protest on his Facebook page. But then that was before he joined the popular Academy Fantasia talent show on TV, where he was known as Mark V11.

When he reached semi-celebrity status as a finalist on the show, Withawat also found himself embroiled in a cyber-scandal over his remarks against the premier – which the overheated rumour mill soon turned into supposed remarks against the monarchy. To their credit, Academy Fantasia’s producers refused to cut the teener from the show in the face of the public outcry over that particular Facebook post. But Withawat’s parents were so unnerved by the public reaction that they withdrew the boy from the show. Withawat also issued a public apology.

This 16 July, the English-language Bangkok Post wrote an editorial on the incident. It reads in part: “That a young man was apparently forced to bow down to social pressure and give up the freedom to chase after his dream because he criticised a public figure and used foul language indicates that the space for tolerance and for differences of opinion to exist may be far too limited. The case of Mr. Withawat also showed how a seemingly small issue can be blown out of proportion, possibly leading to further rifts in society when emotion instead of good sense has been allowed to prevail.”

That sober analysis though, seems to have flown over the heads of some Thai officials; the chief of the Department of Special Investigation was quoted as saying that his office would look into the youngster’s alleged anti-monarchy remarks.

It remains to be seen whether the long arm of Thai laws would keep extending into the Net. Yet there is a bit of silver lining in this particular cybercloud: While the local distributor of the British magazine The Economist took to practising self-censorship and “banned” two editions of the publication that contained stories related to the Thai monarchy in 2008 and 2009, the government itself has not blocked The Economist’s website, where the pieces can be read without any problem.

So far, anyway.