After Thailand's coup, a stifling of online dissent (Q&A)
A Thai correspondent speaks to CNET about the junta's efforts to clamp down on the use of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Instagram, and more.
On May 22, Thailand's army took control of the country. With the prime minister detained and the senate dissolved, the coup leaders had complete power.
In contrast with other moments of political upheaval and government unease around the world, the coup d'etat Thailand took place with the mobile Internet and instant communications in full swing. But since then, there have been many measures to stifle communication and dissent. The junta has implemented site blocking as well as temporarily blocking Facebook to prevent the organizing of protests. Messaging apps such as WhatsApp have also been targeted, too.
Meanwhile, a plan to meet with Facebook and Google executives to discuss the stifling of online dissent failed to get off the ground.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with a Thailand correspondent who works with several news agencies, speaking under condition of anonymity, to discuss measures that coup leaders have undertaken that may interfere with communication and information distribution.
Q: What's happening with the mainstream media, such as TV, radio and online forums?
A: So far, all mass media has been affected. All TV stations now carry the logo of the military administration with the broadcast content, signifying that it is approved programming. Soldiers are stationed inside control rooms and have the power to cut transmission at any time.
Foreign news stations have been taken off the air. Radio must also stick with approved programming. Nothing critical of the coup, junta, or monarchy is allowed.
Furthermore, over 200 hundred websites have reportedly been blocked/filtered by ISPs on orders of the ICT (Information Communication and Technology) Ministry. Chat rooms and Web boards are supposedly monitored by Thai junta agents infiltrating the discussion boards and closing down whatever they deem a threat.
Q: What about social media and instant-messaging apps. Are VoIP services such as Skype affected as well?
A: It was announced on May 30 that representatives of the junta have plans to fly to Japan to meet with Naver Line [a messaging app from Japan] executives to discuss "selective disruptions" to individual accounts. Furthermore, they plan to block individual accounts on other networks as well. If they succeed in their plans, it would mean that long-established accounts airing dissent would be blocked, and while new accounts created using alternate emails or prepaid SIMs could be set up quickly, they might not have the same veracity as the original blocked accounts.
Q: What's happening with the ministries, and are they involved with blocking online dissent?
A: As all ministers have been removed by the coup, generals from the armed forces now serve as proctors to various ministries, with the most senior civil servant in each ministry fulfilling the administrative duties of a minister.
As such, all ministries are under junta control. The ICT ministry is directly responsible for executing orders and telling the ISPs to block websites or wireless carriers to block ports for certain apps like Line and WhatsApp.
The junta is also considering building a "national gateway" controlled by the government which all service providers will have to channel their traffic through (similar to China's Great Firewall). This would allow them/subsequent administrations to easily monitor and block traffic without having to have to rely on the cooperation of service providers.
Q: Can the mobile operators refuse to cooperate?
A: All telecommunications providers must comply with all current and new rules by decree. Even Advanced Info Service PLC (AIS) has toed the line. (AIS is notable for their stakeholders which include Shin Corp., a company founded by the brother of deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and SingTel, the largest telecommunications provider in Singapore.)
Q: What about print media? What's happening with the newspapers?
A: Executives from print media companies have been summoned for a meeting and have been issued with strict guidelines on what is considered acceptable for dissemination. For example, they have been ordered to publish anything that provokes either side of the political divide, they are also not allowed to speak out against the coup, junta, or monarchy.
As the army has assumed control of all administrative bodies of the government as well as the media, they can now decide what is aired and what is kept covered up. So far, they have only allowed the dissemination of pro-coup and reform material from both genuine supporters and staged public relations events from the army's own communications and press.
Q: How do you think western companies such as Google or Facebook will react to the junta ordering the removal of online articles?
A: The military junta has officially announced that they would try to request that certain material be removed from popular services like Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They also want picture sharing services such as Instagram be made inaccessible. As YouTube had complied in the past with civilian government requests, it is possible that they would continue to comply with requests to block anything deemed "illegal" by the current junta.
Q: Has there been any action taken against academics, journalists and other citizens not involved with the previous government?
A: Aside from media blackouts and censorship, academics and almost anyone else showing the capability of producing dissenting content are being summoned by the junta. They have even reached out to Thai nationals residing in foreign countries to demand that they "report in" to the junta. Not only is information access curtailed but so is the production of dissenting content -- these content producers are intimidated to silence. This is no longer just censorship, but more than that.