21 July 2010

Battle against free expression moves from the streets to the Internet and radio stations

After dismantling street protests in May, Thai authorities continue to hunt down any opposition, eliminate remnants of red shirt support and silence critical journalists in the name of national security and the monarchy. Twenty-six community radio stations have been shut down under an indefinitely extended state-of-emergency decree, a popular online venue for political debate has been forced to close its message board, and an online crime agency is being set up to pursue violators of the Kingdom's lèse majesté law (insulting the monarchy), reports the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

At least 35 people working for the closed radio stations are facing lawsuits for allegedly encouraging listeners to join the red shirt demonstrations in Bangkok a few months ago, and for distorting information. On 20 May, 600 soldiers shut down two radio stations in Ubon Ratchathani province and arrested the owner of one station. In other incidents, 200-500 soldiers and officials have been deployed to close radio stations in different parts of the country. Stations permitted to continue operating were warned not to air any political comments.

The government has also intensified online restrictions. Thailand's independent online news website, Prachatai, announced on 8 July that it will close down its web board at the end of the month. Prachatai became a critical place for political debate after the 2006 coup that ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Several people have been arrested in the past for messages posted on its web board.

The government filed charges against the executive director of the site, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, for allegedly failing to remove comments from its web board considered insulting to the monarchy. She pleaded not guilty on 31 May to 10 charges of violating the Computer Crimes Act. Her trial will begin in 2011. The site has changed its url several times in response to being blocked, and continues to operate.

Last month, Thailand's Cabinet approved the creation of an online crime agency to chase after anyone who breaks the lèse majesté law. "The monarchy is crucial for Thai national security because it is an institution that unifies the entire nation," said a government spokesman. Already under the country's criminal law is a stipulation that says anyone can file a lèse majesté complaint against anyone seen as having defamed the Kingdom's highly revered monarch and the royal family. It can carry a 15-year prison sentence.

Since April, 2,200 websites have been shut down for violating the Computer Crimes Act, which was also set up to protect the royal family. ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship report that in January, the Senate had "set up an extraordinary committee to oversee the blocking of further sites, warning that over 10,000 could be targeted."

In a spot of good news, Suvicha Thakhor, serving a 10-year jail sentence on a lèse majesté charge for allegedly using software to modify photos of the royal family before posting them online, was pardoned by the King on 28 June. But he said, "It pains me to think of the four or five other people who are still in prison on lèse majesté charges, the political prisoners and other detainees. The current situation in Thailand is very worrying."

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