Cyber clampdown ripped by foreign watchdog
(dpa)

New York-based Human Rights Watch says the military-backed government has undermined Thailand's free political debate with its unprecedented crackdown on Internet critics.

Since the Sept 19 military coup that ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai authorities have launched a censorship campaign of the Internet that has blocked half a dozen websites deemed critical of the current government, said the human rights group in a statement out of New York.

"A major complaint about Thaksin was his muzzling of the media and willingness to limit free speech," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The military-backed government promised a quick return to democracy, but it's now attacking freedom of expression and political pluralism in ways that Thaksin never dared."

Censorship of the Internet is now being carried out by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT) and the Royal Thai Police, in collaboration with the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT) and the Telecommunication Authority (TOT), which provide Thailand's international internet gateways.

Since the coup, the government has blocked at least five websites on charges of threatening national security, disrupting public order, or being obscene, including the September 19 Network (www.19sep.net and www.19sep.org), the pro-Thaksin PTV television (www.ptvthai.com), the online broadcast of Saturday Voice (www.saturdaylive.org and saturdayvoice.no-ip.info) and the online broadcast of FM 87.75 Taxi Community Radio (www.shinawatradio.com).

While these websites can still be accessed from abroad, local internet surfers in Thailand will get an "Access Denied" message, and the MICT's logo saying that access to such websites has been blocked due to "inappropriate content."

"The ministry has requested Google Thailand (www.google.co.th) and Google.com to block access to its cached web pages in Thailand by which blocked pages can be accessed, as well as to block by keyword search," added HRW.

The group did not mention Thailand's recent blockage of Google's YouTube.com website after it aired clips that ridiculed Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country's revered monarch who turns 80 this year.

The site was blocked under the country's lese majeste law that makes any criticism of the royal family a crime.

It also did not mention the more recent blocking of the entire Blogspot.com site by some Internet providers acting on the MICT's "request".

Thailand, under the current government, has also passed a law to criminalise the generation, possession, storage, dissemination of and access to prohibited information on the Internet and a Bill on Computer-Related Offenses that empowers the MICT minister to intercept and seize computer data, and seek court warrants to block the dissemination of information on the Internet if such information is considered as a threat to national security.

The two laws, which have yet to be passed, include stiff penalties such as a maximum of five-years imprisonment and fines up to 100,000 baht ($2,700).

"Freedom of expression, including offering opinions on the Internet, is an essential basis of any functioning democracy," said Adams. "Blocking critical websites resembles the behaviour of China and Vietnam. Is this the company that Thailand's leaders want to keep?"

Bangkok Post