Thailand: The Land of the Free

FBF is not the biggest fan of The Nation but figures if one is going to say anything on this subject at this point in time, it’s better just to quote something from the established press.

Better ways to save thai online freedom

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
Published on April 6, 2009

SUWICHA TAKOR was the perfect fall guy for the dysfunctional bureaucracy and officials that have been assigned to protect the monarchy. He is just an ordinary online user who passed on “offensive” materials that he received to other surfers on the Internet. The court decision to sentence him to 10 years in prison last week was disproportionately harsh.

His conviction will have far-reaching repercussions on two fronts. First of all, it would imbed a culture of fear deeper into Thai society, especially its netizens, and that would further sterilise society. In that sense, Thailand, which means the land of the free, is no longer free with gagged citizens.

Second, in the long run it would sow the seeds of discontent within the young generation and awaken the silent majority with unimaginable consequences.

On April 3, the court decided that the 34-year-old father of three children was guilty of offences under the 2007 Constitution, the Criminal Code and the Computer Crime-related law of 2007. Suwicha Thakor was sentenced to 20 years in jail on two counts of 10 years each. His sentence was halved due to his confession that he sent pictures offensive to the heir apparent to the throne via the Internet.

Truth be told, from 2004-2008 there must be several thousands of online users, Thais and non-Thais, who have done the same thing as Suwicha – knowingly or unknowingly. After all, it just takes one click. Just imagine what Thailand would be like if thousands of netizens were imprisoned on a similar charge. Just think of the public’s reactions.

In fact, an urgent and frequently asked question is quite simple: why were these offensive pictures, including old and fresh ones, posted in cyberspace in the first place? Who were these people?

Investigations should have been seriously conducted to go after the culprits, who could be far or near to the sources.

After his arrest, Suwicha’s life was completely shattered. Now the future of his family of five including his father is in limbo as he is the only breadwinner. Worst of all, he was dismissed from his job without any compensation. His company reacted quickly for fear that the case would affect its reputation and business interests.

During the uproar over the controversial 44-second clip on YouTube in April 2007, the authorities took down the whole site, attracting severe criticism from around the world. The source was identified and subsequently an apology was issued. Further negotiations with the officials at Google hosting the popular online video-sharing site, have successfully blocked and banned the indecent uploads to the site.

After the YouTube incident, more websites have sprung up with materials considered by Thai authorities to be indecent and offensive. Their standard response has always been to take down these websites.

Interviews with the authorities involved in monitoring and surveying these websites have yielded a one-pattern answer: shut down the sites, otherwise they have to face the consequences at their own peril.

This kind of insistence can also be found in other related laws such as the Official Information Act of 1997. For instance, according to Article 40, officials who disclose information incorrectly to the public would face a harsher term of punishment of a one-year jail term and Bt20,000 fine.

In case they simply break the law and refuse to disclose any information, they would face only three-month imprisonment and Bt5,000 fine. The choice is very clear on what the officials would do.

Naturally, when it comes to the revered institution, nobody wants to be perceived as a recalcitrant public servant. That explains why there are many pending cases of lese majeste and more than 4,000 websites to date have been shut down.

For the time being, officials would be content now that they have taught a lesson to Suwicha and in the process scared millions of online users.

But this tactic would eventually backfire and turn into frustration and could yield worse results in the future. The best preventive measure is to educate online regulators and enforcers as well as online users. Most users are teenagers, who rely on digital media as a means of communication.

As previously stated, authorities must change their mindsets in tackling such a sensitive issue. And netizens must learn that freedom of expression must not infringe on other people’s rights, whether they are ordinary citizens or members of royal families.

Young users, who often do not read newspapers, must be acquainted with cyberspace and criminal laws. If this unhealthy trend continues, which is likely the case, Thailand’s reputation and the effort to recoup from the past calamity would be wasted.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has personally tackled this sensitive issue. After the police raid of the office in early March, two days later he quickly met with the representatives of netizens to assure them that his government respected freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the new Constitution.

He vowed to work together with online communities to come up with Internet norms and standards acceptable to all. Besides, Thailand is the first Asian signatory to the 60-year-old Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is an uphill task as authorities are apparently not on the same wavelength with the prime minister. They continue to follow outmoded standard procedures, which only create more problems and fear than provide solutions.

Like all previous cases, the only way to rescue Suwicha’s family from the quagmire confronting them is by a royal pardon. His lawyer said that he would seek one.

This is a matter of urgency as lives are at stake here. It is hoped that common sense will prevail in our country with its long tradition of freedom of expression and pragmatism. 

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