“Total Censorship in the Air”: How the Thai Junta Has Policed Online Media

It has been over a month since Thailand’s military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), overtook the country’s government during a May 22 coup. Since then, the NCPO has aimed to consolidate political control of the country, an impulse that has filtered down to controlling nearly every minute facet of citizens’ public and private life. Citizens in Thailand can’t gesture with Hunger Games-like salutes, nor can they read such texts as Orwell’s 1984 and Filipino revolutionary Jose Rizel’s Noli Me Tangere in public spaces. Those acts, the junta claims, are expressions of radicalism.

2014 Thai Coup, via Wikimedia Commons.

The NCPO has increasingly moved this strategic policing online. They have ordered Thai ISPs to shut down over 200 sites. Some casualties of this call for censorship include Prachatai, an independent online newspaper; the Asia and Thailand subpages of the Human Rights Watch, which published an incriminating report detailing the country’s 2010 Red Shirt protests; and Facebook, which was blocked for a day on May 28 before the NCPO swiftly unblocked it, citing a “glitch” that activists have chalked up to a social media “kill switch.” When the government tried to set up a meeting with Facebook and Twitter to discuss tactics for censoring anti-junta impulses on social media, the companies in question didn’t show.

Police forces have warned citizens against “liking” any anti-government posts on social media. Last week, news emerged of a Facebook phishing ploy orchestrated by the government – one in which Thai netizens were tricked into giving their personal information, contained in their Facebook accounts, by being asked to “log in via Facebook.”

Access Now recently reported that the junta is now organizing governmental panels that will surveil all facets of national media, extending to online media platforms. The junta is offering monetary incentive to those citizens who turn in photos, videos, or other incriminating evidence of people criticizing the junta.

Lisa Gardner of PBS MediaShift attributes this censorship to the junta’s desire to foster a sense of allegiance towards its regime. For many citizens, the Internet is largely losing its function as a forum through which netizens can access information, share opinions, and fight against the climate of fear engendered by the junta, whom Gardner claims is trying, in earnest, to convince Thailand’s citizenry of its good intentions.

2010 Red Shirt Protests, via Wikimedia Commons.

Writing in Global Voices Bridge, an anonymous Thai journalist described firsthand the current situation as one in which citizens can “feel total censorship in the air.” The journalist notes that Thailand’s history of military takeovers, such as 2010’s aforementioned Red Shirt protests, saw a similar shutdown of media outlets. This created a political climate in which lack of informational access, coupled with an online media milieu that is curated excessively by Thailand’s junta, led to citizen compliance with human rights atrocities – a risk the anonymous journalist feels may be presented by the NCPO’s current hold over online communication outlets.

#IMWeekly: June 27, 2014

A potentially invasive surveillance bill due to be introduced to Australia’s parliament in July is inspiring resistance within the country. The bill aims to target potential jihadists and other terrorists who may be spreading violent rhetoric in their online networks. Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that jihadists who have been radicalized by their experiences with al-Qaeda and its offshoots may threaten national security, spreading their hateful rhetoric online. As such, this bill would give the Australian government power to store public metadata.

In a climate of political uncertainty, the Egyptian government has sought to extend its hold over its citizenry by creating a media monitoring software that will understand multiple forms of written Arabic. The system, built to read both colloquial and Romanized Arabic, would allow the government to access the digital footprints of various citizens who may be harboring oppositional thoughts online. Human Rights Watch’ Cynthia Wong warns that such a move would restrict Egyptian’s netizens from expressing themselves fully and totally online, noting that the Internet has played a significant role in empowering independent voices of reform in Egypt.

As the reality of stifled internet connectivity intensifies in Iraq, netizens are finding cunning ways around these blockages. FireChat, a smartphone app that doesn’t require an internet connection, has seen an unprecedented surge in downloads and consumption since June 14. Iraq, Bloomberg reports, ranks just behind the United States in terms of daily smartphone usage, making FireChat a widely-used form of communication in the country.  A Citizen Lab report released earlier this month also concluded that ISIS filters placed upon websites in Iraq have been largely ineffective, while the use of Psiphon and Tor has increased significantly in the wake of the internet shutdown.

This week, Russia’s Interior Ministry drafted a ten-year strategy to fight extremism – a strategy that could lead to online surveillance of netizens. Extremism is broadly defined under Russian federal law, ranging from hate crimes to armed revolution. The strategy aims to counter politically radical movements from the bottom up, targeting information sources and netizens spreading extremist rhetoric online. News of this plan emerges during a week when Colin Cromwell, Twitter’s head of global public policy, visited Russia and agreed to block “extremist accounts” under the demands of Russia’s Alexander Zharov, the chief of Russian federal communications agency Roskomnadzor.

Since last month’s coup, Thailand’s junta has increasingly clamped down on pro-democracy movements online. For weeks, the “liking” of Facebook pages dedicated to anti-coup groups has been outlawed, while numerous pro-democracy websites have been blocked. IFEX reported that the junta is now deceiving netizens into unveiling their personal details through a deceptive Facebook phishing app, through which users are encouraged to “log in” with their personal information that is stored in their Facebook profiles. This faulty, fake app is in violation of Facebook’s own policies, and it was suspended twice by Facebook as a result. Access also reports that the junta has recently set up five media monitoring panels that intend to surveil social media for any dissenting opinions.

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“Blasphemy” and Social Media in Pakistan

Laal is one of Pakistan’s most popular bands. To the ire of the Pakistani government, it’s known for being vocally, unapologetically secular—so much that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), the country’s governing board for telecommunications, decided to block access to its Facebook page earlier this month. After invoking protest and anger from many netizens, the government lifted the block on Laal’s page.

Similar controversy arose last month arose when the PTA asked Twitter to block access to a number of tweets they cast as unethical and obscene. To the PTA, these tweets defied the country’s blasphemy laws. These ranged from individual tweets, such as ones containing visualizations of Muhammad, to whole Twitter feeds, like that of Duke University pornstar Belle Knox (Knox herself spoke out against the blocks). Twitter complied with these requests.

The company, which reviews censorship requests on a country-by-country basis, justified the blocks by claiming it was more acceptable to block specific tweets than it was to block access to the site as a whole. This past week, after encountering civic resistance at home and abroad, Twitter decided to restore access to the tweets within the country.

Laal performing in Karachi in 2011; via Wikimedia Commons.

Both cases recall a debate that has frightened media activists in Pakistan in the wake of the Snowden revelations. How do Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which date back as far as the 1860s, extend to the Internet? To what extent are these laws, steeped in Pakistan’s history, being used to justify censorship?

The answers to these questions have escaped Pakistani netizens for years now. Pakistan’s Penal Code defines blasphemy in broad terms, and the laws have gone through many iterations dating as far back as the 1860s. For decades, though, civic opposition to the laws has remained strong, especially beginning in the 1980s. As Pakistan’s citizens have moved online, these blasphemy laws have been used as justification for restricting access to tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos. They’ve also been used to justify arrests, assassination attempts, and murders.

The initial decisions to block social media content ignited furor and criticism from civic groups both within and outside of Pakistan. Press freedom NGO Bolo Bhi questioned the legitimacy of giving the PTA power to call for restrictions of content. Activists both within and outside of Pakistan launched a hashtag campaign, #TwitterTheocracy, to mobilize against this censorship. Some netizens criticized Twitter for abandoning its fundamental ethos of protecting free speech, while others, like Richard Dawkins, found it curious that Twitter would side with the country’s age-old blasphemy laws.


The campaign worked.  In a statement reposted on Chilling Effects, Twitter explained that a re-examination of requests prompted the restoration of access on June 17.

To media freedom activists at home and abroad, Twitter’s explanation wasn’t enough. The decision to reverse the restrictions has been hailed, by Bolo Bhi, as something of a minor victory—minor if only because of the ambiguous terms under which Twitter blocked access to the content in the first place.

Media practitioners within Pakistan fear that restrictions of this kind may be due to a new cultural stigma engendered by the Snowden revelations. Snowden’s leaks have led many Pakistani conservatives to cast freedom of expression as a sort of undesirable, neo-colonialist Western conceit. In a letter published by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sana Saleem of Bolo Bhi explained the damning effects Snowden’s revelations have had on netizens in Pakistan, where the government is trying in earnest to replicate NSA’s model of censorship and surveillance. Pakistan’s government has drafted provisions for an allegedly draconian Cybercrime Law, while the country’s Supreme Court has suggested merging the PTA with Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), meaning that social media now be understood as broadcast media. This would subject social media to the same monitoring restrictions as those governing broadcast media. This is the precise justification the PTA used in 2012 when it blocked YouTube, after the controversially Islamophobic Innocence of Muslims made its way onto the sharing site.

To activists and media freedom advocates like Saleem, the Snowden revelations have had the opposite desired effect upon freedom of expression in Pakistan. The state and its actors are now more inclined to monitor what its citizens do online, particularly on social media outlets headquartered in the Western world. If Twitter is the least of many evils—some activists point out that Facebook and YouTube regularly comply with more pervasive government censorship calls – its country-by-country censorship process is still cause for alarm for many of Pakistan’s media freedom activists.

#IMWeekly: December 9, 2013

A senior Brazilian lawmaker said that a vote on a law that would require global Internet companies, like Google and Facebook, to store the data of Brazilian citizens inside Brazil will be delayed until next year due to disagreements about the bill’s content.

Chinese telecom giant Huawei announced that it will no longer be pursuing business opportunities in the US. US officials and lawmakers have regularly accused Huawei of being a proxy for Chinese military and intelligence agencies and have encouraged public and private efforts to inhibit Huawei’s influence in the US.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard arrested 16 cyber journalists and activists “accused of working against the country’s national security, having ties with foreign ‘enemy media’ and designing anti-regime websites.” The arrests followed on the heels of other recent government actions that have infringed on Internet freedom, despite promises by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani to peel back repressive government policies.

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency is collecting vast amounts of cellphone location data to track the whereabouts and movements of hundreds of millions of cellphones around the world. The wide scope of the newly revealed programs has again raised concerns about privacy and is likely to provoke further resentment among foreign citizens and governments who have already expressed displeasure with US spying.

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#IMWeekly: November 12, 2013

A group of hackers claiming to be affiliated with an Indonesian branch of Anonymous defaced dozens of websites belonging to Australian businesses with a message reading, “Stop Spying on Indonesia.” The defacements appear to be in response to recent news about Australia’s involvement in US-led surveillance efforts.

The Brazilian government issued a decree that made good on earlier promises to ensure that from now on government email will be state run and all government data will henceforth be stored in government facilities in Brazil. The move was made as a result of concerns about US spying.

A growing number of high-level Iranian officials are calling for a lift of the government ban on Facebook and Twitter. The ban has been in place since 2009 when social media was viewed as playing a key role in fueling civil unrest.

Hackers claiming to be affiliated with Anonymous defaced numerous government websites to protest alleged government corruption. Five of the hackers were apparently arrested later while protesting near the House of Representatives. The incident appeared to be separate from the abovementioned attack on Australian websites by Anonymous-affiliated hackers from Indonesia.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.