/ 3 February 2012

Thais lead Twitter assault

Thailand has become the first government to publicly endorse Twitter’s controversial decision to censor messages in certain countries.

Twitter announced last week it would permit country-specific censorship of content that could violate local laws, prompting debate worldwide about freedom of speech.

In Thailand, where censorship laws are already heavily enforced, the information and communication technology minister, Jeerawan Boonperm, called Twitter’s decision a ‘welcome development” and said the ministry already received ‘good co-operation” from internet companies such as Google and Facebook.

The Thai government would soon be contacting Twitter to ‘discuss ways in which it can collaborate”, she told the Bangkok Post.

In China, the state-run Global Times also endorsed the new rules in an article this week: ‘It is impossible to have boundless freedom, even on the internet and even in countries that make freedom their main selling point,” it said. Twitter is blocked in China but many users access the site by accessing external networks.

According to the regulations, a tweet from Thailand could be blocked at the request of an individual, a company or the government. However, although it will be invisible to users in Thailand, it could still be seen by users in other countries.

Thailand has some of the toughest censorship laws in the world, ranking it 153 out of 178 in Reporters without Borders’ 2011 Press Freedom Index.

Increased sentences
Thailand’s lese-majesty regulations inhibit defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the royal family, which are punishable by up to 15 years in prison — but under Thailand’s 2007 computer-crimes act, prosecutors have been able to increase sentences.

Last year, a 61-year-old Thai national was jailed for 20 years for sending defamatory SMSes about the monarchy, and a Thai-United States citizen received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for translating a banned biography of the king.

While the information ministry has blocked thousands of websites in recent years — mostly related to online gambling, pornography and lese-majesty cases — the endorsement comes at a time of heightened tension over censorship rules.

A lese-majesty monitoring centre was opened in December and is manned 24 hours a day by staff trawling the net for offensive material. Facebook users already face potential jail time if they click ‘like” or ‘share” on any sites deemed offensive to the monarchy, and anyone sending a link, forwarding or revisiting websites with lese-majesty content should beware, authorities say.

Thailand’s endorsement could have profound ramifications across the region, said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch Thailand, and it ‘adds more damage to an already worrying trend in Thailand”.

‘Twitter gives space to different opinions and views and that is so important in a restricted society,” he said. ‘If this censorship is welcomed by Thailand, then other countries, with worse records for human rights and freedom of speech, will find that they have an ally.” —