Censorship in an online age

Censorship in an online age

Last week’s military coup had a certain familiarity to those of middle age or even younger.

The sudden fading of all TV and radio broadcasting, the martial music, the general officers seated at a desk in their uniforms — all of this has been repeated many times in the past 80 years, from the 1930s through 2006. So, too, were the entirely predictable first few “announcements” of the newest junta. Several of these last week, as always, were orders, cautions, and bans on the media.

Censorship orders in 2014 seem quaint to young people. There are a multitude of communications systems, along with literally hundreds of main and sub-methods of passing information. The recent “flash mobs” of anti-coup protesters were actually unaffected by any of the announcements aimed at the media. The smartphone and tablet generation has little reliance on the type of communications targeted by the early coup announcements.

In the first days of military rule, the group now called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has acted mostly with restraint. The censorship announcements have been more traditional and formal than onerous.

The few censored TV stations are more annoying than meaningful. Newspapers continue to report the news.

The question is whether censorship orders and threats have any place in today’s world. The speed and international focus on news means no government or regime can block it. Nor can it prevent news from getting around and then out of Thailand.

Orders that bar dissemination of information are arguably far more harmful than helpful to today’s military junta.

It is more dangerous to withhold the truth than to print or broadcast it. A lack of reliable information breeds rumours — wildly distorted stories rather than professional reports. A case in point was last week’s widespread “news” that the army had killed two people while breaking up the red-shirt rally in Thon Buri, and then covered it up. A credible, free press can address and repudiate a rumour; a censorship regime will only allow it to fester.

Early coup orders instructed the press not to interview former government officials or academics. They shut down TV and radio. One threatened the print media, which operates under a press law that bans licensing, claiming offending newspapers could “face legal action”. It did not elaborate, and of course no one wants to be the first to find out.

Ideally, the military would block subversive messaging by dangerous or violent people, leaving the other 99% or more Thais unaffected. Of course, such a goal cannot be realised, so trade-offs intervene. In “the old days”, it was simple enough — take over all radio broadcasts from the army’s master station, and cut the international phone access at the General Post Office. We’ve come a long way since then. Communications have become tremendously networked.

And the military does not want to see public criticism. Who does? But Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and aides are already finding the downside of their orders to halt criticism. As it always has, suppression of free speech and communication only drives more critics to seek each other out.

There always are constraints on “free speech”, such as respect and libel. But if a government is to be effective, it will enforce very few. Every order by the military to stop criticising them brings another massive round of texts, messages and postings.

Freedom of speech and the press are highly prized values in our country. A regime that imposes the least censorship will gather the most Facebook likes.

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