Thais block 'bad websites' as battle against Red Shirts enters cyberspace

GEORGE Orwell's 1984 had its Big Brother, and Thailand has Ranongrak Suwanchawee. The country's information minister stares down from billboards along Bangkok's expressways, warning that "bad websites are detrimental to society" and should be reported to a special hotline.

Anti-censorship campaigners yesterday warned that Thailand was now following regimes like neighbouring China and Myanmar in shutting down access to opposition internet sites and seriously restricting press freedom.

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is fighting a battle on at least two major fronts against protesters seeking to oust it. On the streets, a massive force of soldiers and police has only managed to battle them to a standstill.

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In cyberspace, the authorities have fared little better, despite efforts to block dissenting voices with the threat of lengthy prison terms.

But it remains a struggle for uncensored information to get through, forcing both information providers and consumers to resort to various dodges to penetrate the government's firewall, sometimes using tactics perfected by dissidents in such authoritarian states as China and Iran.

The often broad-brush approach to blocking websites even affects surfers just out for some video fun. Live streaming services, and have also been blocked, apparently because they host transmissions by the so-called 'Red Shirt' protesters.

"Thailand is getting increasingly like China when it comes to internet censorship," said Poomjit Sirawongprasert, president of the Thai Hosting Service Providers Club.

Thailand's standing in the Press Freedom Index of the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders slipped to 130 last year from 65 in 2002, when the ratings were initiated.

The latest crisis in Thailand's past five years of political turmoil has pushed the government into tightening already tough controls over the internet.

The Red Shirts want Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call early elections, claiming he came to power illegitimately in December 2007 with the help of back-room deals and military pressure.

The demonstrators have been camped out on Bangkok's streets for almost two months, during which time protest-related violence has left 29 people dead and almost 1,000 hurt. Two police officers were killed in violence on Friday night.

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On 7 April when the government realised the demonstrators were here to stay, it declared a state of emergency, barring the media, under threat of a ban or censorship, from disseminating any news that "causes panic, instigates violence or affects stability".

Immediately it ordered 36 politically oriented websites to be blocked. It also went after small radio stations that are a key organising tool for the Red Shirts, as well as their satellite TV connection.

Their print media so far has been left alone. And although the order is meant to crack down on inflammatory sites, none belonging to the Red Shirts' ideological opponents – the royalist Yellow Shirts, whose sites also sometimes contain extremist content – are known to have been targeted.