BANGKOK: When Thailand’s generals declared martial law to suppress months of political bloodshed, one of the first casualties was freedom of information with a swift crackdown on any murmurs of dissent on television and social media.
Sweeping controls saw soldiers occupy several broadcasters and take a number of TV channels off air in what they said was a necessary measure to keep the peace, as the military tries to solve the nation’s festering political conflict.
Several politically partisan broadcasters switched to the Internet to dodge the censors’ crosshairs, but the army was swift to extend curbs to the Internet, highlighting the growing power of social media in challenging authority in the digital era.
Representatives from Internet service providers were summoned to a meeting on Wednesday and instructed to block any content deemed to threaten peace and order within one hour of its discovery.
“The military fears social media more than television or radio,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.
But “in this day and age . . . the military cannot easily censure bloggers and other cyber communicators.”
Pro and anti-government channels—tub thumpers for either side throughout the seven-month political crisis—almost immediately moved to YouTube or other web streaming sites to side-step the curbs on television broadcasting.
“They shut us down because we belong to a political movement who could attack them,” said Artit Kalainegrn, a reporter for pro-government “Red Shirt” channel UDD.
Its rival ‘BlueSky’, which has delivered round-the-clock coverage of anti-government rallies, also moved to YouTube and other streaming sites.
In response, military brass on Wednesday issued an edict targeting the Internet, setting up a special body to monitor the web.
Six “inappropriate” websites were closed with the “cooperation” of True Corp. one the kingdom’s largest Internet service providers, according to Thakorn Thatasit, secretary-general of Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission.
Previous curbs on media
Even before the declaration of martial law, Thailand faced criticism about its curbs on the media, particularly harsh royal defamation legislation which critics say is used to muzzle free speech and political dissent.
Thailand ranked 130th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Citizen “cyber scouts” are known to troll the Internet for infringements of the law, which forbids any content deemed critical of the monarchy.
More than 1,300 websites—including Wikileaks—were blocked in 2010 during a protest by Red Shirt supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose ousting in a coup eight years ago was the spark that ignited the protracted political crisis.
The key role of social media in recent protest movements across the Middle East may have also caught the eye of Thailand’s top brass.
“It poses a significant challenge to the Thai military . . . they recognize there’s a very vibrant social media culture in Thailand and they are taking a very totalitarian approach to censorship,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York City-based Human Rights Watch.
“The fear is that they will make an example of some high profile people on social media . . . to make others fall into line or self-censor,” it added.
This time round, while some media outlets appeared to heed the restrictions—in a nation where the press is largely privately owned—web users swiftly reacted to the army’s decree on social media.
Cartoons mocking the assault on press freedom went viral on Facebook while photos of people posing with placards decrying the measures widely shared.
One cartoon, a recreation of a famous photograph from the 1989 Tianamen Square crackdown by Chinese authorities, depicted a soldier at the head of column of tanks with a cannon trained on a person sitting on the ground with an open laptop asking “Do you feel lucky?”
In the short term observers say censorship may cramp the ability of protesters on both sides to galvanize support, but the proliferation of social media means its impact will ultimately be limited.
Prolonged Internet controls may incubate future trouble for the military at a time when it is casting itself as a mediator across the nation’s political schism.
“If the martial law exists for a long time and still does not solve the problems—and [it]keeps blocking and limiting people’s rights and freedom—people will start to explode,” said Chiranuch Premchaiporn—a prominent webmaster who has a suspended jail sentence for failing to remove a reader comment deemed critical of the monarchy quickly enough.