Thai coup threatens freedom of expression online

Access and our partners are alarmed by recent political events in Thailand; less than a week after a military coup took control of civilian institutions, the country is now witnessing a crackdown on free expression online and offline.

Internet users in Thailand have approached Access with concern about increased surveillance and attempts to stifle freedom of expression and other human rights online. As many as 219 websites have already been shut down for threatening “national security,” and several journalists have been detained. By mid-week, access to Facebook was briefly blocked, the Thai Army requested internet service providers (ISPs) monitor and report online content that might “lead to unrest,” social media companies were asked to prevent the spread of “provocative messages,” and military authorities barred media outlets from presenting news critical of the coup.

Access is gravely concerned about reports indicating that the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) plans to create a national internet gateway to curb the free and open internet. MICT permanent secretary Surachai Srisarakam stated the ministry’s plans to increase internet surveillance, its ability to regulate content on websites, and to address “provocative” content online. “We want the national gateway to be a more effective tool than the current mechanism for regulating internet use,” said Mr Surachai.

Access Global Advocacy Manager Jon Fox said, “In this turbulent time, Thai internet users must be able to freely access the sites and networks they need to communicate. The world is watching, and we will not sit quietly if the military junta attempts to silence the internet.”

Access urges all telecommunications operators in Thailand to take immediate steps to prevent and address any human rights abuses. Specifically, foreign companies, such as Telenor and its Thai subsidiary D-TAC, should resist requests to block or filter any content. In line with its commitments to respect human rights, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Telenor must insist military authorities in Thailand follow international principles on due process and surveillance, and pushback on any action that would restrict access to information, privacy, and free expression online that doesn’t accord with the rule of law and human rights standards.

Recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all parties in Thailand to “exercise utmost restraint, refrain from any violence and fully respect human rights.” As this is a quickly developing situation, operators should transparently inform all stakeholders of possible rights violations relating to telecommunications in Thailand. More concrete, rights-respecting steps are outlined in the Telco Action Plan, and Access will be monitoring this situation closely.

According to Peter Micek, Policy Counsel for Access, “The days when governments and ISPs could block and filter with impunity are long past. The right to connect is universal and should not be infringed.”

Furthermore, Access fundamentally disagrees with the viewpoint voiced by Mr. Piyakhun Nopphakhun, an official at the MICT, that “in Thailand, we still need to educate people about how to use the internet.” Access believes that free and open access to the internet is critical to the free exercise of human rights. Users should be encouraged to forge their own paths online, rather than adhere to official guidelines.