Thai Website Editor Convicted, Freed

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of the popular Internet news site Prachatai, Wednesday was given an eight-month suspended sentence by the Thai Criminal Court and a Bt20,000 fine for failing to act quickly enough to remove Internet posts deemed insulting to Thailand’s royalty.

Despite the fact that Chiranuch walked out of the court a free woman, the conviction is regarded as another blow to freedom of expression in Thailand, putting all users of Facebook, YouTube and other social media on notice that they too could be jailed if they don’t take down negative comments quickly enough. She was the first webmaster to be convicted.

“I expected to be acquitted, but I found the judge’s verdict logical and reasonable,” Chiranuch told reporters outside the court. “However, I still think the verdict will have an impact on self-censorship.”

Better known by the pen-name of Jiew, Chiranuch was not accused of having written the offensive comments in question. She faced up to 20 years in prison for 10 comments posted by others on Prachatai. She was first arrested on March 6, 2009, when Crime Suppression police raided her office and accused her of violating the Computer Crimes law passed in 2007 after the coup that brought down former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The court said Chiranuch had failed to delete one comment for 20 days while another nine were deleted within 10 days.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said prosecuting her sent “a chilling message to webmasters and Internet companies.” Also, Frank La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, strongly condemned such practices in his May 2011 report to the UN Human Rights Council, stating that, “No State should use or force intermediaries to undertake censorship on its behalf.” He said that, “Holding intermediaries liable for content disseminated or created by their users severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, because it leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law.”

The Computer Crimes Act considerably broadens the scope under which police can punish those who post “false data” that damages a third party, causes public panic or undermines the country’s security and “any service provider intentionally supporting” the said offenses. Many critics have pointed out that Myanmar’s newly passed press regulations mean the former dictatorship is far more liberal in terms of freedom of expression than Thailand is.

One blogger wrote that “The case was considered crucial because it highlights the vague legal interpretation of the Computer Crimes Act made possible by ambiguous wording. It also highlights the challenges against a (perceived) decrease of freedom of speech, but since these comments were not made by her, her thoughts and intentions are on trial, only because she did not delete these comments quickly enough.”

The government has continued to tighten the screws on freedom of expression in Thailand, partly because of concerns over the succession to the 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest serving monarch. The king’s son, Vajiralongkorn, who turns 60 in July, is widely regarded as unfit to take over as monarch. In addition, the military, headed by Prayuth Chan-ocha, has moved quickly and harshly to counteract any criticism of the coup that brought down Thaksin and subsequent actions, including the killing of more than 90 protesters in Bangkok in May 2010.

Chiranuch’s case has drawn international criticism, including by the British Parliament, which passed a resolution saying her arrest “threatens Thailand’s reputation for tolerance of free expression and risks creating a climate of fear” and “further notes with concern that this particular law has led to thousands of websites being blocked in Thailand; opposes web blocking and censorship; and calls on the government of Thailand to review the situation.”

It has been estimated by the Thailand-based NGO Political Prisoners in Thailand that as many as 300 lese majeste cases had been filed against bloggers and others by mid-2010 although other estimates range as high as 410 brought in 2010 alone. Those numbers include the entire executive committee of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

The country was rocked by the death on May 8 of Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul, 61, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, after complaining about severe stomach pain since Friday. He died in a government hospital, not long after he had decided to request for a royal pardon. Previously he had always maintained his innocence. Akong was found guilty on four counts under the lèse-majesté law and computer crime laws. He was accused of sending four text messages which supposedly insulted the royal family. It has never been proven that indeed Akong had sent out those messages.

One blogger under the name Siam Voices wrote that “Today’s verdict is a clear sign by the Thai state that freedom of expression doesn’t really exist here. Besides directly cracking down on content that is deemed insulting, defaming to the monarchy or just simply not according to a dominant national narrative, the verdict also underlines the requirement to its citizen to self-censor to satisfy a pre-emptive obedience.”

The blogger called the verdict “a huge blow for internet freedom as the Thai authorities and its laws are still far from being up to date, as the latter are too ambiguously worded and leave too much room for misuse. Even though Chiranuch walks away free today, this verdict is a warning shot to everybody who dares to push the very limiting boundaries of what can be said in Thailand.”