The status of Thailand’s online freedom of expression began to deteriorate from the moment the new Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra assumed power in July 2011. Abusive recourse to the politically exploited lèse-majesté law has led to an increase in litigations and strict censorship. The sentencing of Ampon Tangnoppakul, known as ”Uncle SMS” set off a chain of heated reactions in the country and abroad. Apparently the government has forgotten its promises to amend Article 112 of the Thailand Penal Code.
New government’s gloomy record in terms of Internet freedom
When she took her oath of office on August 10, 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra vowed that "the lèse-majesté laws [should] not [be] used inappropriately.” This statement was contradicted on August 26, 2011 by Vice Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who has made the fight against lèse-majesté crimes his priority.
Since taking office, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has shown itself to be worse than its predecessor in terms of Web filtering. After assuming his position as Thailand’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Anudith Nakornthap ordered the blocking of 60,000 Web pages in less than three months, as opposed to 70,000 in the preceding three years. In his view, this was proof of the government’s loyalty to the King. According to the Bangkok Post, the rising number of blocked URLs is tied to the increasingly common use of social networks and to their capacity for disseminating information. The Minister claims that, unlike when previous officials in his Ministry asked ISPs to block sites on court order, he now directly asks ISPs and administrators of websites hosted abroad to close sites or block them so that “objectionable” content can no longer be accessible to those living abroad. The Minister made his statements in the context of December 1, 2011 inauguration of the Cyber Security Operations Center (CSOC).
Based on photocopies of official documents shared by Mahidol University’s Kwanravee Wangudom Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies between January and October 2011, 122 lèse-majesté cases (which may or may not have been prosecuted) were reviewed by courts of first instance, eight reviewed by appeal courts, and three by the Supreme Court.
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung has announced that Net surveillance will be strengthened in the name of lèse-majesté laws, in order to enforce such control 24/ hours/day. The government plans to invest about USD 13 million in Net filtering to block sites guilty of lèse-majesté.
Another example of the abusive use of lèse-majesté laws and their consequences is the announcement by the authorities that if netizens visiting Facebook merely click on the buttons “like” or “share“ linked to content that potentially violates lèse-majesté laws, they could be prosecuted.
Countless legal proceedings against netizens for lèse-majesté crimes
On December 8, 2011, blogger Joe Gordon was sentenced by a Bangkok court to two and one-half years in prison on lèse-majesté charges for translating on his blog excerpts of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s banned biography by Paul Handley, entitled “The King never smiles.” This Thai-born American pleaded guilty in the hopes of a royal pardon.
Ampon Tangnoppakul, also known as ”Uncle SMS,” received a 20-year sentence on November 23, 2011 for sending text messages deemed to be “insulting the monarchy,” but he denied having sent them. His case aroused strong reactions in the country. It was the first time that the Thai media covered this topic in-depth. Angry international criticism also arose, mainly from the United States and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights claiming that the lèse-majesté law had a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
The trial of the Prachatai news website editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn, better know by her pen name Jiew, resumed in Bangkok on February 14, 2012. The five witnesses presented by the defense were heard by the capital’s court of assizes, which announced on February 16 that the verdict would be rendered on April 30, 2012. Charged with violating Article 15 of the Computer Crimes Act and paragraph 112 of the Thailand Penal Code, Chiranuch faces a possible 20-year jail sentence for not removing comments “insulting to the monarchy” posted on the Prachatai site quickly enough. (Read Reporters Without Borders’ previous press releases about this case.)
This trial has helped to clarify the responsibility of technical intermediaries. The first witnesses for the defense helped Jiew’s case, according to her lawyer. At the conclusion of the February 14 hearing, Prachatai’s editor shared her satisfaction with Reporters Without Borders over the fact that the court had heard the defense witnesses.
Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, former editor of the magazine Voice of Thaksin, banned since 2010, has been held on remand for seven months for “insulting the monarchy.”
Several netizens are still incarcerated for lèse-majesté crimes. Surapak Phuchaisaeng is still awaiting a verdict in his prosecution for messages he posted on Facebook. Thanthawut Thaweewarodomkul was sentenced on March 15, 2011 to 13 years in prison for articles he published on a website linked to the “Red Shirts”: Nor Por Chor USA. Student blogger Norawase Yotpiyasathien, who was arrested on August 5, 2011, was finally released on bail three days later. Akechai Hongkangwarn and Wiphat Raksakunthai were released on probation while awaiting their trial.
Lèse-majesté debate more bitter over “Campaign 112”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRCT), set up under the previous government advocated a lèse-majesté law reform in January 2012, deeming the existing one “too harsh.” Thailand’s powerful army Commander-in-Chief General Prayut Chan-ocha judged such reform unnecessary and induced the critics to leave the country.
An academic initiative to revise the lèse-majesté law caused a political uproar. Ignoring pressure, the Nitirat Group composed of seven law scholars from Thammasat began to collect signatures three weeks ago in order to submit a petition to relax the laws protecting the monarchy – which angered the army’s Commander. The university had prohibited the group from using its offices to work on this project, citing the risk of violence, but then reconsidered. This ban had created considerable tension, with student groups demonstrating for and against the group’s activities.
Early in 2012, 224 scholars from all over the world, including Noam Chomsky and Paul Handley, published an open letter supporting the proposal of an amendment to the lèse-majesté law (Article 112 of the Thailand Penal Code) and the Nitirat Group spearheading the reform. Article 112 was denounced as “a powerful way to silence political dissidence.”
The Thai government has distanced itself from this initiative, stating that it does not want to modify Article 112. The House of Representatives could block the debate, even if the required number of signatures has been reached.
Thailand was the first country to express satisfaction over Twitter’s adoption of new rules making it legal to block content on a nationwide scale. The Minister of Information and Communications Technology declared that he would work with Twitter to make certain that tweets disseminated in Thailand comply with local laws. Twitter’s executives be prepared to receive many requests for tweets to be removed.
Other than for monarchy-related issues, the media are relatively free in Thailand. Yet there is a persistent and growing threat of litigation for lèse-majesté crimes and related self-censorship. Any form of dissidence can now be interpreted as disloyalty to the monarchy. The country seems set on an endless course to purge the Web of any content closely or remotely linked to lèse-majesté. This repressive and doomed approach can only further divide the population and erode national cohesion.