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Thailand

Thailand among worst violators of free speech in cyberspace

Creeping authoritarianism is relentlessly on the march in the Southeast Asian nation

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Published: August 09, 2021 05:59 AM GMT

Updated: September 02, 2021 05:32 AM GMT

Thailand among worst violators of free speech in cyberspace

Thai commuters check their phones as they wait for an underground train in Bangkok. The internet is facing increasing censorship in the Southeast Asian nation. (Photo: AFP)

Internet freedom in Thailand has eroded to a point where the country, once a bastion of comparative liberties in Southeast Asia, now ranks among the worst violators of free speech online in the world.

That stark assessment comes courtesy of a prominent website that monitors the state of internet freedom worldwide.

In its latest global ranking by Comparitech, a website dedicated to boosting cybersecurity and privacy online, Thailand has landed near the very bottom of countries with internet freedom being 73 percent restricted. Thailand has been assigned a lowly score of 8 out of 11 based on the level of restrictions imposed on online communication by citizens.

“Turkmenistan, Belarus and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] all featured in our ‘worst countries’ breakdown in 2020.  But this year they are joined by Qatar, Syria, and Thailand,” Comparitech explains in a statement.

“Thailand saw the biggest increase in censorship,” it adds, singling out the Southeast Asian nation and citing a large-scale ban of websites with pornographic content over the past year.

However, what is a cause of much greater concern to many free speech advocates than restrictions on pornography is that Thai authorities also monitor the online activities of citizens and severely curtail their rights to free expression.

Vaguely defined enhancements to offenses can multiply prison sentences by up to 10 or 20 times without any requirement of serious harm

At their disposal they have several draconian laws, including the Computer Crime Act, which can be readily employed to launch criminal investigations against netizens for simply expressing opinions online. The lengthy and often vaguely worded act criminalizes various activities conducted online and prescribes prison sentences for violators of it.

“[The Computer Crime Act] allows the government nearly unfettered authority to restrict free speech, engage in surveillance, conduct warrantless searches of personal data, and undermine freedoms to utilize encryption and anonymity,” explains Article 19, a British human rights organization focusing on the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and freedom of information worldwide.

“Vaguely defined enhancements to offenses can multiply prison sentences by up to 10 or 20 times without any requirement of serious harm.” 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Thai netizens can also run afoul of a stringent lese majeste law, which prescribes up to 15 years in prison per count for any criticism of the country’s royals. Then there are punitive civil defamation laws, which are frequently misused by those in power and with influence to try and silence critics by dragging them through prolonged and often financially ruinous court cases.  

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Most egregiously, scores of young rights and pro-democracy advocates, many of whom are still in high school or college, have been charged with lese majeste, or royal defamation, over the past year. Their crime: they have been calling for a reform of what they see as Thailand’s ossified political system, including the imposition of new constitutional limits on the monarchy.

In most other countries, these would hardly be seen as crimes, much less ones deserving of years or even decades in prison.

In the face of the mounting cases of lese majeste filed against pro-democracy activists in Thailand, prominent United Nations-affiliated rights experts have expressed alarm and urged Thai authorities to stop using the law punitively. Their pleas have not been heeded so far.

“We have repeatedly emphasized that lese majeste laws have no place in a democratic country,” several special rapporteurs said in a joint statement earlier this year.

The move was essentially a gag order meant to outlaw any posts or comments critical of his administration’s handling of the situation

“Their increasingly harsh application has had the effect of chilling freedom of expression and further restricting civic space and the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms in Thailand.” 

Seemingly undaunted by such calls, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014, issued an emergency decree earlier this month instructing local internet service providers to automatically block the access of any user who posted “fake news” about the country’s ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, for which numerous citizens and media outlets have been laying the blame on their government’s mismanagement of the situation.

The move was essentially a gag order meant to outlaw any posts or comments critical of his administration’s handling of the situation or not in line with government pronouncements. Liberally minded citizens and numerous prominent media organizations alike were up in arms over it.

The Human Rights Lawyer Alliance and a dozen media companies filed a complaint against Prayut. The Civil Court ruled in their favor and issued an injunction on Aug. 6 suspending Prayut’s executive order, arguing it was against the law.

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