Minister for Digital Economy and Society, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, criticised Facebook this week for offering ‘little cooperation’ to Thai authorities in removing material requested under current legal provisions. He compared the social network giant to rival silicon valley operator YouTube who he said had removed over 93% of all requested material this year, with Facebook it was just over 28%.

Social media giant Facebook found itself under investigation this week by the Crime Technology Division of the Royal Thai Police following an inadvertent blunder during a ceremony for the King’s birthday on Tuesday which led to a message being badly translated into Thai which generated floods of complaints from citizens to popular National TV broadcaster, Thai PBS.

Minister for Digital Economy and Society, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, criticised Thailand’s most popular social network just days after a blunder in an auto-translation feature led to a criminal investigation following a complaint to the Technology Crime Suppression Division by public broadcaster Thai PBS. The minister compared the social network channel unfavourably to video social network YouTube.

A letter from the Digital Economy and Society Ministry has been sent to Facebook and a criminal enquiry launched by the Technology Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police following a blunder on Tuesday in which a message announcing a candlelight ceremony for the Thai King’s birthday got lost in the automatic translation system the social network platform uses, leading to a flood of complaints by irate viewers to national broadcaster Thai PBS who had aired the Facebook material on its social channels.

Official complaints were received from outraged viewers on Wednesday leading the public broadcaster to file its own formal complaint with the Technology Crime Suppression Division of the police.

Facebook has announced that it has suspended the translation service in Thailand on its main social network and on Instagram promising to upgrade and enhance the quality of translation.

Although the basis for the complaint is a technical malfunction, many onerous legal provisions in Thailand are ones of strict liability including many offences under the Computer Crime Act of 2017.

Faulty translation during live broadcast caused a flood of complaints to Thai TV station

The public broadcaster pointed out that when it discovered the error in translation being displayed, 10 minutes after the live broadcast commenced, it took immediate steps to have it removed. The English version of the translated text was: ‘Live Candle-lighting ceremony to celebrate the birthday of HM the King on July 28, 2020, at 6.45 PM’.

After taking down the offensive content, the TV broadcaster immediately notified the Royal Household, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society and other state agencies to explain what had happened.

Heightened tensions over portrayal of the monarchy

There are heightened tensions over the treatment of the Thai monarchy, in recent weeks, with ardent royalists becoming increasingly more active in protecting the revered institution from becoming embroiled or linked with political commentary brought on by student protests which erupted in Bangkok on July 18th.

It follows a recent pronouncement by Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, that the government was refraining from prosecuting individuals under Thailand’s severe Lèse-majesté provision contained in Article 112 of the Criminal Code which can lead to up to 15 years imprisonment for any act that criticises the monarchy or even brings it into question.

The PM cited an explicit request from Thai King Vajiralongkorn or Rama X who has asked that this specific legal charge is not applied to suspected offenders.

Thai PM pledges support for a free press in Thailand after it fell four places in the 2020 rankings

Some weeks ago, the Prime Minister, General Prayut, pointed out that his government respected and would uphold the rights of a free press in the kingdom.

In the most recent Press Freedom Index, published in April, Thailand was ranked 140th in a world index of 180 countries surveyed. China was 177th as Thailand found itself behind such countries as Myanmar and Afghanistan.

The country fared better than Cambodia (144th) and noticeably Vietnam, Thailand’s growing commercial competitor which was only two places ahead of Communist China at 175th.

The report noted a ‘steep decline’ in press freedom across Asia.

It blamed this on ‘the adoption of undemocratic and totalitarian practices, the emergence of a populism that unleashes hatred on journalists, and extreme media polarization’.

Norway led the index.

Some feel latest rankings may not have factored in the dissolution of the military junta

Some observers have come out to criticise the rankings which suggests that the media in Thailand is working in an increasingly difficult environment and point to the relaxations on press freedoms that came about when the National Council for Peace and Order or military junta was finally dissolved in 2019.

This came months after the March General Election and prior to the installation of the democratically elected government.

It was accompanied by the scrapping of a range of significant restrictions on the press, slack which has been taken up by the media to place the government under stricter scrutiny and review.

Thai authorities, in recent times, have shown some reticence to use its powerful arsenal of powers against the press and coverage of political affairs in Thailand.

The environment for the press is generally less prohibitive and more robust than other Asian countries such as Singapore which was listed 18 places below Thailand in the most recent index.

However, many critics see a rise in nationalism, populism and xenophobia in Thailand which can lead to journalists and media outlets becoming a victim of legal complaints and prosecution driven by unofficial forces.

The Thai prime minister has consistently pointed out that while Thailand has its own unique society, culture and legal system which may prohibit it completely adapting western standards, he is willing to explore ways of raising the value of human rights in the kingdom as a priority.

Fake News centre turned out to be benign

Thailand introduced a Fake News Cente at the end of 2019 which has emerged as a fact-finding resource which examines and reports on news items spread by social media and some news websites based on public reports, which are misleading and detrimental to the public good.

It has not turned out to be a tool to oppress editorial freedom or to constrain reporting standards as some had feared when the scheme was first mooted by the government.

Nonetheless, there have been persistent reports that the government and key ministers would like to extend government monitoring and control of news, especially relating to national crises or fast-moving events through a news pool for reporting controlled by a centrally specified organisation.

Singled out Facebook for criticism at a meeting this week with internet and media players

This week, following Tuesday’s controversy, the Minister for the Digital Economy and Society, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, singled out Facebook for criticism suggesting that it was slow to cooperate with relevant authorities in removing internet pages and content under court orders obtained by Thai officials.

Minster Buddhipongse Punnakanta was speaking at a meeting on Thursday with the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission and a range of internet service providers in Thailand.

Minister wants to see internet firms cooperate with the government in implementing the law

He called on all internet firms to cooperate with the government under Thailand’s draconian and wide-ranging Computer Crime Act which is increasingly used by security services and designated officials to regulate online content and prosecute egregious offenders.

Minister Buddhipongse compared the response to requests made under court order from Facebook to remove certain pages against another US internet giant popular in Thailand, YouTube

The minister said that YouTube had removed 1,507 of 1,616 requested pages so far in 2020. By comparison, Facebook had only removed 1,316 out of 4,676 pages requested.

‘Facebook gave little cooperation although it operates a service in Thailand and Thais generate fruitful benefits to the company,’ Minister Buddhipongse observed following repeated surveys showing Thailand as among the Silicon Valley giant’s most successful markets in the world.

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