There’s a certain category of news story that not long ago simply did not exist. It falls under the heading of “Government (X) Tries to Block (Yahoo, YouTube, Whatever) From Showing (Whatever).”
If I were the age of my undergraduate students at UCLA, such stories would not seem remarkable. After all, I would have been surfing the Internet, diving into MySpace, FaceBook, YouTube ever since junior high. Black-and-white television, never heard of it!
But for those of us who were reared in an era when touchy or insecure governments would keep their powerful paws on a centralized media to the point of strangulation, these stories put a bit of a smile onto our weathered faces.
And so, arriving here over the weekend, I had to laugh at the story in the Bangkok Post, the country’s leading English-language daily. “Gov’t seeks to block YouTube videos again” was the headline.
It seems that officials of Thailand’s military government don’t always like what their people can access on YouTube, and they’re not just blowing the censor’s whistle at the shenanigans of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton.
Their latest complaint has to do with what they deem serious propaganda against the government and the king.
Please understand that in Thailand, the monarchy is not the near laughingstock or for-show totem that it is in some other constitutional monarchies.
Rightly or wrongly, the throne and his majesty the king are revered figures.
Not long ago, the government had ordered filters on Google’s YouTube sites that were deemed irreverent to the monarchy.
In the latest uproar, a two-part Internet miniseries called “The Crisis of Siam” offered YouTubers , in Thailand or anywhere else , what its creators described as the true inside story of the September 2006 military takeover of the civilian government of Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile.
What’s interesting is that the military government officials found the account offensive not so much perhaps because of its content as its source; to them it looked like a Thaksin production.
Remember that when the Thai generals kicked Thaksin and his team out on Sept. 19, 2006, one of their first moves was to suppress and censor the media while declaring martial law, dissolving parliament and banning all protests.
But there’s a problem now. In the old days, it was no big deal to put into motion that time-honored tactic of junta-monsters everywhere.
You send a bunch of scary soldiers to close down the radio station, smash the printing press and maybe offer a few TV types a free ride to the airport and an obligatory seat on an airplane out of the country.
And that would be that.
You can still do so today, but even then you’re left with another problem.
It’s called the Internet, and it’s really hard to arrest and shut down and jail in the way the old centralized media could be so manhandled.
In China, to be sure, they’re trying harder than anyone and haven’t given up.
They have more filters on servers than anybody can count and more monitors to peek into chat rooms than you can believe.
But still the Chinese people sometimes figure out a way to get around the filters and the censors and the closed-down Web sites to get access to what they want.
The difference between today’s Internet digital technology and the old radio-wave, paper-print and analog TV technologies is that the latter can be centralized and held in a few hands.
But the former cannot be contained so easily. From an authoritarian’s perspective, the Internet is something of a Pandora’s box, a technology that can throw up much potential trouble the minute a society opens up to it.
What’s more, from the standpoint of the individual citizen who is not rich or powerful, the Internet is empowering, sometimes devilishly so.
Its technological capabilities bedevil governments from Bangkok to Beijing to Burma.
Experts who understand this technology a lot better than I do (that is to say, all of them!) tell me that over time, the technology should win out over the repressors.
Trying to get a handle on the Internet is like trying to empty the ocean into one bathtub. It cannot be done, but that will not stop the old crowd from trying.
It is fun to watch them fail and flare in the effort. To be sure, the Internet is not exactly a sinless realm; it can deprave through the worst sorts of pornography, as well as inspire with the best ideas for hope and freedom.
But in the balance of any fair-minded weighing process, it is an increasingly valuable tool for the average men and women, struggling to be free and to improve their lives.
On the whole, blemishes notwithstanding, it is a very good thing , though not generally for the average junta or dictator.
UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author of the new book “Confessions of an American Media Man.” This column was written in Thailand.