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Junta's bills stifle free expression in run-up to vote

Thailand will vote tomorrow in a national referendum for a new constitution that the government says will guarantee democratic rights, including press freedom and freedom of expression.

Published on August 18, 2007

Yet before people can vote, the military-appointed legislature is ramming though a series of restrictive new laws that will make a mockery of these constitutional protections.

The legislature is now rushing to enact as many as eight new laws, which for broadly defined reasons of national security will strictly limit the charter's media freedom guarantees and once implemented will undermine further the country's fading democratic credentials.

 The legislation entails some of the most restrictive and potentially punitive measures for governing the Internet anywhere in the world. The new Computer Crime Act, which came into force on July 19, gives Thai authorities broad discretionary censorship powers and entails possible prison terms for people who use proxy servers to access government-blocked materials on the Internet.

Since last September's coup, military-appointed authorities attached to the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Ministry have on then dubious legal authority moved to block several politically-oriented websites, particularly those that have reported favourably on ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In a move that made global headlines, the ICT Ministry blocked popular video-sharing website YouTube after anonymous contributors posted video clips that, in violation of the country's strict lese majeste laws, which carry possible 15-year jail terms, lampooned His Majesty the King.

The government's new willingness to openly censor Internet-posted news suddenly puts Thailand in league with Asia's more notorious media freedom violators, including the likes of China, Vietnam and Burma.

More broadly, it shows how the application of laws intended to protect the honour of Thailand's widely revered monarch can have a sweeping and adverse impact on freedom of expression. With YouTube blocked, the Thai people are cut off from a vital new tool of global communication.

Despite the military's promise to hold elections and restore democracy by the end of this year, there are more media restrictions in the interim government's legal pipeline. Apart from the already passed Computer Crime and Film and Video acts, the appointed National Assembly is hastily drafting bills for governing broadcasting and television operations, public-broadcasting organisations, printing and publishing, and the suppression of so-called "dangerous behaviour instigation".

Several media freedom and pro-democracy advocates in Thailand fear that in varying degrees and forms, every one of the eight bills will include new restrictions and limitations on the media and stall the once constitutionally mandated process of shifting ownership of the broadcast media frequencies from state to private hands. Currently, all of the country's six main television stations are state-owned and since last year's coup on military orders news broadcasts have been heavily self-censored.

 Not only do the proposed bills represent a significant step backward from the various media liberalisation and press-freedom guarantees enshrined in the now abrogated 1997 constitution, but their proposed restrictions chillingly hark to the darkest days of Thailand's long history of military rule.

 For instance, the new print bill now under deliberation will likely leave in place the 1941 Printing and Publishing Act, which gives government authorities broad discretionary powers to close down newspapers for reasons of national security. Thai journalists have for years been campaigning to have the draconian law taken off the books.

Even with the more progressive 1997 constitution in place, Thai journalists were already working in an increasingly hostile environment. Deposed prime minister Thaksin filed several crippling criminal and civil defamation suits against journalists and editors and guided big state advertising contracts away from the few critical local newspapers that refused to tow his government's line.

 But the military-appointed interim government's repeated promise to take a more enlightened approach towards press and media freedom issues nearly 11 months later clearly has not been honoured. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont in particular had vowed not to use the same "carrot and stick" approach to media management that the previous government employed.

Local press freedom advocates, including the vocal Campaign for Popular Media Reform, have called on the military-appointed legislature to cease passing any additional media-related laws until a new democratically elected government is installed early next year. Even as questions linger about the legality of last year's military intervention, the appointed legislature is now rushing to enact laws that seem partially designed to stifle critical debate about the military's controversial plans to extend its influence over Thai politics even after this year's elections.

 The people of Thailand are being asked to make a decision about their political future in an environment in which the flow of information and ideas is deeply curtailed. The fact that new laws are being rammed through before and outside of the referendum raises questions about the legitimacy of the entire constitutional process.

The Thai people are not being given a say on their rights to freedom of expression - the future on that crucial democratic score, it seems, has already been decided.

Joel Simon, Shawn W Crispin


Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based press freedom advocacy group. Shawn W Crispin is CPJ's Asia Program consultant.


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