‘Obscene content’ is ‘fake news’ in Thailand — and you can get arrested for spreading it

November 20, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Thailand’s brand new Anti-Fake News Center arrested a person for the first time last week.

According to The Bangkok Post, the Digital Economy and Society Minister, Buddhipongse Punnakanta — who is considered the name behind the new governmental regulatory entity — said the person who was taken into jail is a “hacker” who anonymously asked people to join messaging groups at Line (a WhatsApp-like app) so he could later share links to “obscene websites that came with advertisements for diet supplement products.”

The minister also said that the “hacker” used some software to illegally obtain users’ information — the reason his computer and other tech devices were confiscated for further investigation.

In Thailand, it is illegal to anonymously acquire personal information by using computer systems and also to share obscene links. For the first offense, a person can be sentenced to seven years in jail and/or a 140,000-baht fine (about $4,600). For the second crime, the sentence can be as high as five years of jail and/or a 100,000-baht fine (around $3,300).

The efficiency of Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center has been under scrutiny since Nov. 1, when it was launched.

That day, Reuters visited the office and wrote a report saying the center was “set up like a war room, with monitors in the middle of the room showing charts tracking the latest ‘fake news’ and trending Twitter hashtags.”

On its first days of operation, the center had around 30 officers and was supposed to focus on a sweeping range of topics like natural disasters, the economy, health products and illicit goods.

Thailand’s government said, however, it will also target links, images and videos that can broadly affect “peace and order, good morals, and national security.”

On Wednesday, the Chinese newswire service Xinhua published that, in 12 days of operation, the Anti-Fake News Center had detected 7,962 messages with false news content.

Quoting Minister Puttipong Punnakanta, the report emphasized that most of the misleading information was “related to bogus health products,” followed by false news inciting social division and affecting national security.

Specialists contacted by the IFCN in Bangkok who requested anonymity said they are trying to fact-check the amount of false content the government said it found online (around 8,000 pieces in 12 days).

The group also had a few critics about the first arrest made by the center, pointing out that “obscene content” might not fall under the concept of “fake news.”

“In Thailand (and maybe all over the world), the term ‘fake news’ has a different meaning for each person. It may point out to a piece of information that they don’t like, or to something that they don’t want to believe. It could also be applied to some piece of information that causes harm, a political cartoon or a fabricated piece of content. It’s up to each person’s view,” said the specialist.

Among citizens, reactions to the Anti-Fake News Center vary, but the majority of Thailand seems to understand it’s just on the initial stage and hopes the government keeps its promise of avoiding political pieces of content, focusing instead on hoaxes that can harm people.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

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  • Christina, just checking — the second offense is a lower penalty than the first? “In Thailand, it is illegal to anonymously acquire personal information by using computer systems and also to share obscene links. For the first offense, a person can be sentenced to seven years in jail and/or a 140,000-baht fine (about $4,600). For the second crime, the sentence can be as high as five years of jail and/or a 100,000-baht fine (around $3,300).”