Thai authorities use scare tactics to curb political rumors online

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 12, 2013

Thailand’s authorities are openly resorting to scare tactics to curb online discussions of politics after the summoning of several users for posting coup rumors on Facebook and a dumbfoundingly revealing interview with an official admitting his division’s use of said methods.

The debate of the amnesty bills in parliament last week and the anticipation of opposition both in and outside the House caused the government to invoke the Internal Security Act in order to deal with anti-government protests. This, along with suspicious tank movements to the capital Bangkok (later dispelled by the army as a routine exercise), triggered heightened political tensions with fears of an escalation of the ongoing standoff between the various factions.

So it comes to no surprise that these tensions are being discussed online, including the inevitable mention of a possible military coup (which unfortunately is never out of the question in Thailand). However, such talk is not tolerated by the Thai authorities and have launched counter-measures, as seen last week:

Four people, including an editor of a TV channel, will be summoned for posting statements on social media which could lead to anxiety among the general public, a senior police officer said today.

Pol Maj Gen Pisit Pao-in, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division [TCSD], said the four suspects posted messages via social media, saying they anticipated a coup and urged people to stock up on food and water in preparations for shortage. Their statements could put people in a state of panic, he said.

The four included Sermsuk Kasitipradit, political and security editor of Thai Public Broadcast Service (ThaiPBS), Dechatorn Tirapiriya, a Red Shirt leader in Chonburi province, Warnuee Kamduangwong and a user under the pseudonym “Yo Onshine”.

Four people to be summoned for posting unwanted texts on social media“, MCOT, August 5, 2013

The contents of the Facebook posts themselves are largely unknown to the public and the most prominent person to be accused, ThaiPBS‘ Sermsuk Kasitipradit, has reportedly already deleted the offending Facebook post. He was interrogated on Friday.

The TCSD chief also was of the opinion that the four persons summoned – even before any charges were filed – violated Article 116 of the Criminal Code and Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act (and NOT “National Computer Act”, MCOT!). Both articles address the matter of “national security” stating that “words, writings” or “false computer data” respectively that can cause “disturbance” or “a public panic” is punishable with either a hefty fine or five years in prison or both.

Regular readers know that the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) is vaguely worded and deeply flawed, and thus its interpretation and application in conjunction with the Criminal Code by the authorities are arbitrary as the countless lèse majesté-related cases have shown in the past.

What this case also reveals is the blatant view of the Thai authorities in regards of curbing free speech online with straight-up intimidation, as the TCSD’s chief Police Maj.-Gen. Pisit Pao-in shows in what can only be described a dumbfounding interview:

Q : Are asking if clicking “like” is now against the law. [sic]

A : It will be if you ‘like’ a message deemed damaging to national security. If you press ‘like’, it means you are accepting that message, which is tantamount to supporting it. By doing so, you help increase the credibility of the message and hence you should also be held responsible. (…)

A : The TCSD action is just meant to have a psychological impact. We don’t want these four persons to be jailed. We just questioned them and it’s okay for them to say they didn’t mean to create panic. After this action, people are now more careful [about their Facebook messages]. I am mainly aiming at social peace. (…)

Q : What about “sharing” such a message?

A : There are two kinds of sharing. If you share in a way to support the original message, this is wrong. But if you comment against the message, this is okay.

‘Liking’ political rumours is a crime“, The Nation, August 11, 2013

Unfortunately, Pisit’s staggering and blatantly anachronistic comments are in line with past and present governments in handling online censorship: under the premiership of Abhisit Vejjajiva the number of blocked URLs skyrocketed and the ‘Cyber Scouts’-program to monitor online dissidents was launched. The current government of Yingluck Shinawatra has maintained if not even worsened the trend by doing essentially more of the same, as current Minister for Communication and Technology (MICT) Anudith Nakornthap vowed to continue the crackdown on lèse majesté contents and has also pledged to criminalize Facebook ‘likes’ not once, but twice now with the current case!

It is just astonishing yet unsurprising that such a self-image and understanding the Thai authorities still have of what and how discussions – especially of political nature – are ought to be like and ought to be dictated by only them. By admitting to openly use such scare tactics against online users and to outlaw simple ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on Facebook, it really begs the question what their understanding of ‘social peace’ is, that can only be enforced.