The spring 2010 crisis had a negative impact on online freedom of expression. The state of emergency was marked by an escalation of censorship, while the various factions continue to use the lèse majesté crime against their political opponents, allegedly to protect the King and to ensure the country’s stability.
State of emergency and censorship
A state of emergency was imposed on 7 April and lifted on 22 December 2010, but it was replaced by the Internal Security Act (ISA) which provides Thailand’s leaders and the army with the means to censor without having to resort to judicial procedures.
While the state of emergency was being imposed, in many Thai provinces and notably in Bangkok, control was considerably intensified over the media affiliated with, or with close ties to, the “Red Shirt” movement – led by partisans of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A TV network and some radio stations, Internet websites and publications were censored, banned and forcibly shut down or are involved in legal proceedings. Most of these media supported the « Red Shirts » demonstrations and even occasionally called for insurrection, but they also relayed the legitimate demands of a part of the Thai society. Although it is to be the public prosecutor’s office is entitled to prosecute media outlets which circulted calls for violence, any sentence brought against a media outlet should have been issued by judicial authorities, which was not the case at the height of the crisis.
Even though the Internet websites of the leading Thai media outlets were not affected by the were not censored, alternative sources suspected of backing the Red Shirts’ movement were sometimes rendered inaccessible. The situation differed from one Internet service provider to the next. Official sites such as uddthailand.com or norporchorusa.com and news sources such as thaienews.blogspot.com or thaifreenews2.com were blocked. The website www.nocoup.org, moderated by the Red Shirt activist Sombat Boonngamanong, was closed on the day the state of emergency was declared. Spaces conveying statements by charismatic opposition leaders were specifically targeted, for example the Facebook page of former union leader Somyos Pruksakasemsuk.
The independent news website Prachatai, which supplied first-rate coverage of the events as they unfolded, was also censored and had to change its URL address several times in order to keep its online website active prachatai.com became prachatai.net, then prachatai.info and most recently prachatai2.info. From the moment the crisis began in mid-March 2010, the news site, as well as its page on the social networks Facebook and Twitter, were blocked countless times by the Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES).
From then on, online censorship reached new heights. An exact figure is difficult to determine, but it is estimated that from 80,000 to 400,000 URLs were blocked in January 2011. According to the iLaw Project report, 74,686 URLs were blocked by court order between July 2007 and July 2010. This number excludes the sites which the Thai police and army blocked without a court order (which is permitted under a state of emergency or the State of Security Act). The situation has scarcely changed since the state of emergency was lifted.
Surveillance is becoming the norm
Under normal circumstances, the Internet is controlled and monitored by the Thai Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, which blocks those sites which it deems offensive, mainly those charged with violating the lèse majesté law. However, since the authorities view this crime as an offence against national security, the army and police force are also implicated.
Informing is also encouraged. Internet users can denounce any site which commits a lèse majesté crime by telephone, simply by calling 1111, the number of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, or by accessing websites.
The Ministry of Justice also created a “Cyber Scouts” unit consisting of volunteers who monitor the Internet and denounce activities which, according to the authorities, should not occur there. The authorities plan to train several hundred Cyber Scouts.
Revival of crime of lèse majesté
King Bhumibol Adulyadej is revered by the population. He is considered as the guarantor of the unity of a country accustomed to changes in government. There are serious concerns about his state of health. During his last public appearance – the first in months – he offered his New Year greetings seated in a wheelchair. The subject is virtually never mentioned in the press: it is practicing self-censorship from fear of being charged with lèse majesté.
It is dangerous, even under normal circumstances, to discuss the King or his family in Thailand. In a period of crisis, the risks are monumental. His image is even more protected than usual. Anyone who dares to malign his reputation will be charged with lèse majesté. Article 112 of the Thailand Penal Code provides for a sentence of from three to fourteen years against “whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent.” The most dissuasive aspect is the conviction rate, which is approximately 95%. Most of the time, the defendants prefer to plead guilty, which reduces their sentence, and then request the royal pardon.
On 15 June 2010, the Thai government approved the creation of an agency specialised in cracking down attempts to malign the monarchy’s image on the Internet, the Bureau of Prevention and Eradication of Computer Crime. The authorities justified its creation by explaining that “the monarchy is crucial for Thai national security because it is an institution that unifies the entire nation.”
This agency has strengthened an already dissuasive legislative arsenal, including the lèse majesté (criminal) law and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. Internet users will pay a high price because of it.
A dozen netizens caught in a vicious legal circle
According to the December 2010 iLaw Project report, 31 cases of lèse majesté have been recorded, eleven of which violated an article of the Computer Crimes Act. A judgement was rendered in four such cases, court proceedings are underway in three others, and twenty-four of them are still in the investigative stage. Sixteen of these cases were instigated by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.
In these cases, a dozen Internet users were being prosecuted for violating the lèse majesté laws or the Cyber Crimes Act. Among them were Jonathan Head, a British BBC correspondent in Southeast Asia who has since left Thailand, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor who has sought asylum in Great Britain and Nat Sattayapornpisut, a blogger. Another case is Praya Pichai, who was prosecuted for offending a foreign Head of State, namely Kim Jong-Il, North Korea’s leader. He pleaded guilty and was given a suspended prison sentence. On the other hand, Tasaparn Rattawongsa, a doctor at Thon Buri Hospital ; Theeranan Wipuchan, a former UBS Securities executive ; Katha Pajajiriyapong, an employee at the KTZMICO brokerage house ; and Somchets Ittiworakul are all charged under section 14 of the 2007 Computer Crime Act with posting “false information endangering national security.” The netizens had explained the steep fall in the Bangkok stock market last October by the poor health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had been hospitalised since September 2009.
The most widely covered lawsuit to date concerns Chiranuch Premchaiporn (nicknamed Jiew), director of the online news website Prachatai, who has been the target of a genuine judicial harassment campaign. Twice charged in two different cases, she risks being given a prison sentence of up to 70 years. First of all, Jiew stands accused of violating the Computer Crimes Act and of having taken too long to remove ten comments about the crime of lèse majesté posted on the website between April and August 2008. By virtue of this law, Internet website owners will henceforth be liable for statements made by visitors to their sites. They must assume the legal consequences in court. Chiranuch Premchaiporn is facing a 20-year prison term. Her trial will begin on 4 February 2011.
A second complaint against her was filed on 28 April 2008 by Syunimit Chirasuk, a Khon Kaen province resident, because of comments associated with an interview – published by Prachatai – of Chotisak Onsoong. The latter was charged with lèse majesté for failing to stand when the national anthem was played before the showing of a film in a movie theatre. As the website’s director, Chiranuch Premchaipoen is charged with “defaming, insulting and threatening the King and the royal family” (lèse majesté), and of having “ made public statements inciting disorder” (Article 112 of the Thai Penal Code)).
Internet user Suwicha Thakor, sentenced on 3 April 2009 to 10 years in prison for a "lèse-majesté crime," was pardoned by the King on 28 June 2010. He was accused of having disseminated on the Web photos which the Royal Family deemed “offensive.”
Thanthawuthi Thaweewarodom, webmaster of a “ red” website, was arrested on lèse majesté charges on 1 April 2010 by virtue of the Computer Crime Act. His verdict should be known on March 16, 2011.
Warawout Tanangkorn (Suchart Nakbangsai), a “red shirt” activist, pled guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison on 24 November 2010. He will ask for a royal pardon.
These multiple prosecutions are also intended to intimidate other Internet users likely to criticise the King and to force them to practice self-censorship. Other netizens have been briefly arrested or interrogated, but their exact number is difficult to determine, because many of those charged are avoiding any publicity for fear of reprisals and the authorities are obliged to open an inquiry whenever a lèse majesté complaint is filed.
Despite the fact that the country is emerging from a serious crisis, the authorities response in the form of an upsurge in the use of censorship, is not a solution likely to favour national reconciliation. An urgent reform of the archaic lèse majesté law and Computer Crimes Act is needed. Only then will journalists and netizens be able to fulfill their role of informing the public, denouncing the authorities’ abuses, and discussing the country’s future without having a “sword of Damocles” suspended over their heads.