Free Speech on Trial in Thailand

See also: Thailand and the WikiLeaks Cables II

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of Thailand's independent news portal, Prachatai.com, went on trial Friday in Bangkok's Criminal Court, facing up to 50 years in prison on charges of insulting Thailand's monarchy.

The charges persist despite the fact that Chiranuch made none of the comments herself and apparently attempted to cooperate with Thailand's censors, according to testimony by the country's chief censor last Friday. Also, on three separate occasions, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has expressed concern about the case.

The trial, expected to last for eight days, is considered a landmark for the climate of free expression in Thailand. The government plans to call 14 witnesses as does the defense, making it highly unlikely that the trial will be completed in the time allotted by the court.

The public web forum has been blocked in Thailand since last July, although it is being updated in English and can be accessed elsewhere.

Chiranuch is the latest of scores of people to be charged with lèse majesté. Her trial comes amid widespread questions over why Chiranuch, a common citizen, is being charged while three of the country's top officials – General Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the Privy Council and a former prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, another former prime minister, and Air Chief Marshall Siddhi Savetsila have not been questioned. The three were quoted in an explosive cable made public by the WikiLeaks website making insulting comments to the then-US ambassador about the crown prince.

The comments express doubts over whether the prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, should become king because of his links with fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and because of his reputation as a womanizer. The k, now 83, is in poor health and has been confined to a hospital for months.

Thailand's iLaw Foundation found in December 2010 that 185 people have been charged so far under the Computer Crimes Act in a four year period. David Streckfuss, a Kon Kaen-based academic, estimates that 98 percent of those charged with lèse majesté have been convicted so far, with sentences ranging up to 18 years. Streckfuss believes 172 such arrests took place in 2009 alone. Thailand is also said to have blocked 425,296 web pages during the period of emergency rule from April 7 to Dec. 22, 2010. Prachatai was among the first blocked. None is known to have been unblocked since the expiration of emergency powers. iLaw estimates that this number is rising by approximately 690 new blockages per day.

The web editor has been accused of 10 violations of the country's Computer Crimes Act, the first law to be passed by Thailand's military coup legislature in 2007. Each charge carries a sentence of five years in prison. However, Thailand's Constitution carries specific protections for free expression that cannot be amended by any lesser law.

Chiranuch faces prison stemming from pseudonymous postings and comments to Prachatai's public web board in mid-2008, although she was not arrested until March 2009. It is alleged that she failed to delete the comments quickly enough, allowing them to remain 11 days in total.

The first session of the trial opened Friday with testimony by the first prosecution witness, Aree Jivorarak, chief of Thailand's Ministry of Information and Communication Technology's IT Regulation Bureau. The chief judge, the prosecutor and Jivorarak all spoke in subdued tones without amplification as the content of the postings were read aloud by the witness, nearly inaudible in the public gallery. Repetition of lèse majesté by anyone is also lèse majesté and often courts are cleared of the public in such trials.

Jivorarak seemed frequently confused by the questions posed by the prosecution. Jivorarak, Thailand's chief censor, smiled and waved to Chiranuch in the dock whom he acknowledged he had consulted frequently and noted that she had always been cooperative and receptive in removing such comments from the Prachatai webboard.

The censor also acknowledged that, during the period which is the subject of this trial, the ministry had not informed the webmaster about the offending comments.

Defense cross-examination by three human rights lawyers elicited some surprising testimony from the government's witness. The ICT ministry, for example, seemed unaware that Prachatai is governed by the directors of a foundation consisting of numerous prominent academics.

When questions were posed about who in government exactly decides content is illegal and what criteria are used to judge such content as lèse majesté, the witness became increasingly vague. Jivorarak said such decisions were made in committee from various ministries and the Royal Thai Police. However, he was unable to name the committee members or their specific agencies.

The censor failed to reply to numerous direct questions from defense lawyers and sat mute, with no direction by the court to answer. He also questioned the intentions of Prachatai, saying many of its news articles were "inappropriate" and solely intended to criticize the government.

However, when Jivorarak was shown 10 pages of comments from Prachatai's web board and asked by the defense to mark those he considered lèse majesté, he marked only three, which were not disclosed by the court. He also acknowledged that the ministry had tracked the posters of the comments by IP address but only one of them had been charged.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with members of the Thai Netizen Network in December 2009 and pledged that the Computer Crimes Act would never be used to suppress citizen media or free public expression. He has commented publicly at least three times on the Prachatai case, saying that Chiranuch's arrest was the "most regrettable" of his tenure and promising to look into the case. He finally expressed surprise the case hadn't been dropped.

However, the case goes forward despite the fact that the government has had more than two years to drop the charges.

Freedom Against Censorship Thailand can be found at http://facthai.wordpress.com.