Prachatai editor facing 70 years for ‘lèse majesté’-AFP

December 30, 2010

Thai web editor may face 70 years in jail

Kelly Macnamara

Agence France-Presse: November 23, 2010


Chiranuch Premchaiporn’s air of cheerful optimism crumpled briefly as she contemplated the threat of 70 years in prison — for remarks about the Thai monarchy that other people posted on her website.

“People ask, ‘why don’t you flee or escape?’ But it is not my choice at all. I grew up in Thailand. I am part of this society,” the 43-year-old editor of the popular Prachatai news website said.

“I still hope that I will be defended by the fact that I complied with the law,” she told AFP in an interview.

Chiranuch was arrested in September as she returned home from attending a cyber freedom seminar in Hungary.

She was charged with breaching computer laws and Thailand’s lese majeste legislation — which prohibits criticism of the royal family — for failing to remove reader comments posted on her site swiftly enough.

Already facing trial and potentially 20 years behind bars for earlier similar charges, she believes the second case could carry a maximum sentence of 50 years.

Chiranuch, who strongly denies the allegations, says she was taken by surprise by the latest arrest warrant, which was issued in September 2009 and inexplicably languished in police files for a year before being enacted.

The case centres on five out of 200 reader remarks on her website reacting to an April 2008 interview with a man convicted under the lese majeste rules after refusing to stand when the royal anthem was played at the cinema.

A single complaint from an unnamed individual apparently prompted the arrest. According to Thai law, anyone can make an accusation of insulting the monarchy and the police are duty-bound to investigate.

Chiranuch, who is now free on bail, believes Thailand’s government has tried to promote self-censorship.

“They create a kind of fear and there is no need to be accountable at all,” she said. “They try to control or silence the voice of the people.”

The royal family is an extremely sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch and revered as a demi-god by many Thais, has been hospitalised since September 2009.

David Streckfuss, a Thai-based academic and author of a book on the country’s defamation laws, says human rights organisation have “only touched the tip of the iceberg” on the number of lese majeste cases in the kingdom.

He says that while there were on average five to 10 cases heard by the courts every year between 1995 and 2004, this rose dramatically after 2006 to more than 100 every year.

The peak was 2009, with 164 cases tried, 80 of which resulted in convictions.

“A newly awakened consciousness has expressed itself in some discontent in the institution and unfortunately there has been a tendency to conflate calls to reform the institution with calls to abolish it,” he said.

“There has been no discussion, there has been accusation of treason instead.”

Thailand faces criticism by rights groups for suppressing freedom of speech using lese majeste, its Computer Crime Act and emergency rule, which remains in place in Bangkok and nearby areas following political unrest in April and May.

Two months of mass anti-government rallies by the “Red Shirt” opposition movement, which was seeking immediate elections, sparked clashes with security forces that left 91 people dead, mostly civilians, and nearly 1,900 injured.

Authorities have used the emergency powers to arrest hundreds of suspects and shut down anti-government TV channels, newspapers, radio stations and websites. Prachatai has also been blocked on several occasions.

Reporters Without Borders recently downgraded Thailand to 153rd in the world for press freedoms — below the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Palestinian Territories.

The Thai government has said it cannot interfere in Chiranuch’s case.

The web editor “has to defend herself in the court”, said spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

A committee was set up last year to provide standardised guidance on what cases of lese majeste should be prosecuted because “different agencies they just use their own judgment sometimes properly, sometimes not properly”, he added.

Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International, said the government should repeal the laws or bring them into line with international standards.

He said the legislation is open to misuse and creates an “enormous pre-emptive chilling effect on freedom of speech”, silencing any controversial views without the government having to overtly censor publications.

Prachatai, loosely translated as “free people”, was created to provide an outlet for reporting of subjects shunned by Thailand’s often timid national media.

Chiranuch closed the Internet forum in July but has been heartened to see new web boards springing up.

She fears for her future — the first case begins early next year — but is optimistic that the charges against her will be dropped.

Recalling a mantra from her 13 years working for an NGO to try to destigmatise AIDS, she explains her determination to proclaim her innocence and fight for web freedom: “Silence equals death.”


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