New MICT Minister Stays the Course to Censorship

After the fallout of the no-confidence vote of June 4, the cabinet has been reshuffled and all Puea Paendin ministers have been thrown out. One post very prominent post that was affected by the change is the Minister of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). The infamous Ranongruk Suwunchwee has been replaced by Juti Krairiksh of the Democrat Party. And the first order of the new minister was...

The Thai cabinet Tuesday approved the creation of a new cyber crime agency to stamp out online criticism of the revered monarchy.
The government, which has removed tens of thousands of web pages in recent years for insulting the royal family, said the main task of the Bureau of Prevention and Eradication of Computer Crime would be to protect the monarchy.
"The monarchy is crucial for Thai national security because it is an institution that unifies the entire nation," government spokesman Watchara Kanikar said.

"Thailand sets up unit to tackle websites insulting royals", AFP, June 15, 2010

Ok, this probably was planned before the new minister took the helm of the MICT. In fact, according to a Bangkok Post article, this task came from way up the order.

A parliamentary showdown caused a cabinet reshuffle caused the end of the career of the best information and technology minister Thailand has had since 2009; farewell Ranongruk Suwunchwee, who transformed the ministry from a mere communications technology bureaucracy into a true Ministry of Internet Censorship of Thailand (MICT); also looking for work will be Ms Rangongruk's spouse Pairote, who will presumably lose his unofficial but thriving office at the ICT ministry; it will be difficult for new minister and Democrat Party functionary Juti Krairiksh to live up to the standard of the previous censor, but he insisted he was up to the task; within days of taking office, Juti confirmed that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had personally instructed him that monitoring websites was one of the three most important jobs he would ever perform for the country.

"Censorship baton passes", Bangkok Post, June 16, 2010

And to emphasize his calling even more he said this:

Mr Juti added that the warnings was not intended to violate freedom of opinions because Thailand is not a dictatorial country. The government has given too much freedom for its citizens, this time it only asks the website owners to control their web contents without violating other people’s rights.

"MICT to curb violations of Computer Act", National News Bureau of Thailand, June 15, 2010

Just to give some perspective, this is what the government has 'achieved' so far:

There is also the issue of censorship itself with Prachactai reporting CRES blocked more 1,150 websites in last week of May alone, while Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) recently claimed ”the aggregate total [of websites] blocked so far is over 65,000”.

"Thai Government Introduces Internet Censorship Agency", Jon Russel, June 17, 2010

Kavi Chongkittavorn of The Nation has commented on the government's efforts so far:

The government is willing to spend an additional hundreds-of-millions of baht to track down and shut the websites and their URLs. But the end result would remain the same - more would appear. No matter how Thai authorities want to censor the Internet, they will not succeed. That has been the past practice with valuable lessons learned.

So far, online censorship has had only negative repercussions on Thailand and its online users because it blocks public access to information and commercial transactions worldwide.

It gives Thailand extremely bad publicity and reputation - something the country can ill afford to have at this crucial time. Thai authorities often said they have no option but to shut down these websites, which in their view, have committed "lese majeste," which literally means "injury to the monarch."

Such bureaucratic responses were mostly knee-jerks. (...)

Question is: are there better ways to handle the online proliferation of defamatory remarks about the monarchy in ways that would not impair the freedom of expression in this country?

Of course, there are workable approaches. But they would require extraordinary efforts that would include close consultation, openness and transparency from all parties.

One must not forget Thailand used to be among the world's top thirty countries (Freedom House, 2000) with long-standing press freedom. However, since former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in 2001, the index of press freedom has suffered a free fall, leaving Thailand only a partly free country.

With continued political crisis, the Thai media has yet to recuperate and gain free press creditability. Although the Abhisit government has a liberal attitude towards media freedom, the PM has not been able to enforce his vision in full.

"Thailand must rethink online censorship", The Nation, June 21, 2010

The article also addresses the recently set up "Advisory Committee on National Security Cases Involving the Monarchy" and what cases it has to deal with. It's worth a read.

The problem with such rigorous censorship is that is the beginning of a slippery slope that the end justify all means, whatever the costs. Also, a well-known and old problem is the constant uncertainty what is actually allowed and what is already illegal. It is the same problem that the regulators face each time they have to decide when to report a site or not. Since in this heated political climate those on the side of the government are more eager to pledge loyalty to the King and thus, when in doubt, it is more safe to block a site - processes become subject to gut feelings.

via Jon Russel and Bangkok Pundit