A Bangkok criminal court judge today sentenced Prachatai news website editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn to a year’s probation and a suspended eight-month jail term under the Computer Crimes Act for allowing 20 days to go by before removing a comment critical of the monarchy that was posted by a visitor to the website’s forum.
“We share Chiranuch’s relief that she has not been imprisoned but she has yet to recover her freedom of action and we regret that she was found guilty of insulting the monarchy,” Reporters Without Borders said. “An appeal is possible but it will now be very hard for Prachatai to reopen its forum as a place for debating Thai society’s problems.”
Chiranuch, who is better known by the pen-name of Jiew, said she was not happy with the verdict. “As a content host, I am still regarded as guilty,” she said. Her lawyer said: “Even if the trial outcome was generally positive, the court nonetheless took the position that she deliberately hosted content critical of the monarchy, and this was not the case.”
Chiranuch had been facing a possible 20-year jail sentence under section 15 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act and paragraph 112 of the criminal code (concerning lèse-majesté) for failing to move quickly enough to remove a total of 10 comments deemed to have insulted Thailand’s monarchy.
During the trial, the defence tried to demonstrate that Chiranuch took appropriate precautions when she adopted a policy in 2006 giving site the right to delete any comments that appeared to contain false information or information that could not be verified. Prachatai finally closed down its discussion forum on 31 July 2010 out of concern that it could be abused.
In the end, the judge only convicted Chiranuch for the comment that stayed online for the longest time – 20 days. He ruled that this was unreasonably long, although section 15 does not specify any time limit.
He initially sentenced her to a fine of 30,000 bahts (750 euros) and a year in prison, but immediately reduced this to 20,000 bahts (500 euros) and a suspended eight-month jail sentence on the grounds that she cooperated with the authorities and has no criminal record. She was free to leave the court after immediately paying the fine but will be on probation for a year. She is considering an appeal.
“Like the criminal code article on lèse-majesté, the Computer Crimes Act provides for disproportionate sentences,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This verdict poses a threat to all those who host Internet content in Thailand. They are subject to a repressive law that can be interpreted in an unreasonable manner.”
In a related development, the police ordered Prachatai to remove seven articles by Pravit Rojanaphruk on 16 May on the grounds that they are being investigated for possible infringement of the lèse-majesté legislation. Pravit, who also writes for The Nation newspaper, told Reporters Without Borders: “I don’t think any of my articles violated the lèse-majesté law.”
Regarding today’s verdict, Pravit said: “This is bad news for freedom of expression because it makes the hosting website legally responsible for content and this will lead to more self-censorship. I also think Prachatai is being targeted because it is currently the site that is most critical of the monarchy.”
“The king never smiles”
The Prachatai case is far from isolated. A journalist and a blogger are currently detained on similar grounds.
Somyos Prueksakasemsuk, the former editor of the banned magazine Voice of Thaksin and a member of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (better known as the “Red Shirts”), was arrested on 30 April 2011 after refusing to identify the person who wrote the two articles that allegedly defamed the king.
He was tried last month on two lèse-majesté counts for which he could get a combined sentence of up to 30 years in prison. The trial was suspended after his defence lawyers asked Thailand’s constitutional court to determine whether the lèse-majesté law is constitutional. No verdict will be issued before the constitutional court issues its ruling.
Joe Gordon, a Thai-born US citizen and blogger, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on 8 December 2011 on a lèse-majesté charge for translating passages of “The king never smiles,” a banned biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej by Paul Handley, and posting them on his blog. Gordon pleaded guilty and is hoping for a royal pardon.
Another conviction that caused an outcry in Thailand was that of Ampon Tangnoppakul, nicknamed “Uncle SMS”, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on 23 November 2011 for sending SMS messages that “insulted the monarchy” to a government official. Ampon, who has since died, denied ever sending the messages.
There was also international condemnation from various quarters, including the United States and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which said the lèse-majesté law had a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
“Only the courts should be able to demand the removal of online content, not the police,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We condemn the way article 112 on lèse-majesté has been used in an anarchic fashion for political ends and we call for the charges against Pravit Rojanaphruk to be dropped. We also point out that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said the lèse-majesté legislation should not be ‘used inappropriately’.”
The Prachatai case has highlighted the growing harassment of online publications under the pretext of combating lèse-majesté. Thailand is classified as a country “under surveillance” in the “Enemies of the Internet” survey that Reporters Without Borders issues every year.
Read our previous press releases on this trial: