Thai government directions on "rumor-mongering" growing out of proportion

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) expresses its concern over a statement made by Information and Communication Technology Minister Ranongrak Suwanchawee of Thailand threatening to pursue legal action against websites and their respective Internet service providers (ISPs) where posts discussing the King’s health allegedly caused the drop in the Thai bourse last month.

SEAPA is concerned that the Thai authorities’ reaction to the postings is growing out of proportion. Minister Ronangrak's statements, in particular, and the way in which the Computer Crimes Act is being invoked over what started out as a securities concern, suggest a dangerously broadening scope of government interest that would tend to intimidate free expression online.

After failing to back up allegations of stock manipulation, the MICT is transforming its accusations to one premised generally on "rumor mongering" affecting  "national security",  with authorities now suspecting a conspiracy to spread false information about the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.  

The online version of a mass local daily, “Thai Rath”, on 4 November quoted ICT Minister Ranongrak as saying that she is waiting for the outcome of the police investigation on the possible link between a “rumor-mongering gang” which allegedly posted unverified assertions about the king’s health and  two alternative political news and commentary websites on the MICT watch list.

Though she did not refer to the websites by names, the three persons who had been arrested admitted to have posted on the web boards of at least two websites, and "Fa Diew Kan" (Under the Same Sky).  Ranongrak then branded the two websites as “subversive” and declared that the MICT is considering taking legal actions against the webmasters and close down the websites' respective ISP companies if they allow these websites to continue posting what the minister claimed as offending information.

“The ICT Minister’s statement itself is a concern because MICT has no authority to close down any website or take actions against ISPs,” said Chavarong Limpattamapanee, vice president of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and a SEAPA board member. “Every step on this matter has to be carried out in accordance with the law,” he said.

The MICT has claimed to have shut down over 2,000 websites deemed as threatening national security early this year. The Internet community has widely criticized this move as an abuse of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act, which is primarily designed to fight pornography and computer system sabotage but with broadly-defined provisions and harsh penalties.

Arresting the two citizens, Theeranan Vipuchanin and Katha Pajariyapong, on charges of spreading rumors online when in fact they merely posted Thai translation of articles from respected media outlet Bloomberg, was already a concern.

By invoking the Computer Crimes Act and national security to go against "rumor mongers", the government has already sent a chilling message to the online community and Thais in general. Threats to crack down on ISPs hosting allegedly "subversive" websites at the very least signal an irresponsible wielding of the Computer Crimes law.

We in SEAPA call on the MICT and other authorities to rethink their position on this issue, refrain from abusing the broad provisions of the Computer Crimes Act and desist from threatening citizens' freedom of expression. 


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