Frustrated with what she saw as corporate influence and political bias in Thailand’s print media, Chiranuch Premchaiporn helped launch a news Web site in 2004 to try to filter out the spin.
For a while it worked, with thousands of people visiting Prachatai.com every day to read stories they did not see in newspapers and to air their views on the Web site’s lively chat boards.
But everything changed after a 2006 coup ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“After the coup, for a month I got contact from the ICT [Information and Communication Technology] Ministry warning us about some of the comments on our Web board,” Chiranuch said.
Since then, she has been summoned by police eight times to answer questions about content on her site, while 20 pages on the site have been blacklisted and blocked by the authorities in the last five months.
Activists say the blossoming of blogs and Internet chat rooms poring over the kingdom’s tumultuous politics has unnerved the authorities, prompting a crushing campaign of censorship to suppress dissenting voices.
The government installed by the coup-makers enacted a law in 2007 policing the Internet and the current administration of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appears to be implementing it with vigor.
More than 4,800 Web pages have been blocked since last March, an ICT official said, notionally because they contain content deemed insulting to Thailand’s revered royal family.
The monarchy’s role in the recent political upheaval remains one of the most sensitive subjects in the kingdom, with few local newspapers willing to touch the issue.
“The Thai media is now being completely made tame. They don’t dare report lese majeste cases or any anti-government positions,” said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor. “So people express themselves through the Internet and the government wants to try and put a stop to this.”
Abhisit came to power in a parliamentary vote on Dec. 15 after ongoing protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) helped topple the Thaksin-linked ruling party less than a year after it won elections.
The PAD openly claimed the support of the monarchy, while critics of Abhisit say his Democrat Party enjoys the backing of the powerful military.
All the intrigue provided grist for the thriving chatrooms.
“It encouraged people to talk more and the Internet is the most liberal space in Thailand,” said Supinya Klangnarong of Thai Netizen, a media group.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Thailand has more than 14 million Internet users and last month it put out a statement asking if Thailand was the world’s “new enemy of the Internet.”
They deplored the arrest of one user after authorities claimed to have matched his computer’s Internet address to one used to post online messages deemed defamatory to the monarchy.
At the same time, analysts said that a record number of investigations were being conducted into lese majeste cases, which carries a jail term of up to 15 years.
Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was jailed for three years on Jan. 19 for defaming King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in a short passage in a 2005 novel.
Giles was officially charged on Jan. 20 with lese majeste in connection with a book he wrote about the putsch.
“They are really turning the clock back with a medieval-style witch-hunt going on and you don’t have any transparency,” Giles said.
Three issues of The Economist have been pulled from the shelves by the Thai distributor in an act of self-censorship because they contained articles about the Thai royals and lese majeste.
When questioned in December about censorship, Abhisit said Thailand was not the only country that blocked Web sites carrying material deemed offensive.
“The details of which contents are blocked are different according to the traditions and the historical factors of each society,” he said.
Supinya said they had asked authorities many times for a list of the banned Web pages to no avail.
The communications ministry, meanwhile, announced it is setting up a “war room” to police the Web, claiming that thousands more sites insult the monarchy and therefore threaten national security.
Activists say, however, that the government’s policy will eventually backfire, as Thais will find an outlet to discuss topics crucial to their country’s future.
“You block one, 10 more Web sites will happen,” Chiranuch said.