FACTorial: Trial of webmaster is Thailand’s shame

February 18, 2012

Free speech on trial in Thailand

When Thai govt ordered a police raid on independent news portal Prachatai and the arrest of citizen journalist and webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn on February 5, 2009, it didn’t just shoot itself in the foot. It planted a landmine and then stepped on it, blowing off one of the Thai elephant’s front legs!

Prachatai was founded in 2004 by respected scholar, social activist, freedom of expression advocate and former Thai senator, 2005 Magsaysay Awardee Jon Ungpakorn. From conception to inception to evolution, Prachatai became the singular voice in reporting news no other Thai media would touch and remains so.

All other Thai media, both traditional and online, practice relentless self-censorship even when not directly blocked by govt censors and often simply don’t cover any sensitive issues regarding corruption, the military, the monarchy, or the Southern Muslim insurgency for independence.

Prachatai, on the other hand, not only reports those issues but gave readers web fora to discuss them as well as allowing public comments to its news articles.

We were told in court Chiranuch was arrested not for comments she made on Prachatai but for not being sufficiently prompt or in removing 10 comments Thai govt allege are lèse majesté. Chiranuch was charged using the military coup govt’s Computer Crimes Act.

Each count carries a five-year maximum penalty with which Thai courts have proven very heavy-handed. Although Chiranuch was charged with ten counts for a potential 50-year sentence if convicted, as the charges are all under the same law, she faces only 20 years.

When the Democrat Party chose Abhisit Vejjajiva as its prime minister, one of his first meetings with Thai citizen activists was with representatives of Thai Netizen Network, Campaign for Popular Media Reform and Prachatai. The PM stated that the computer law would never be used to curtail free speech.

The Prime Minister lied.

At a later meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, when asked about the Prachatai case, the PM said he thought the case had been dropped and mentioned Chiranuch’s arrest was the greatest regret of his administration.

Not only was the past PM a liar but one who always seems to have his lies caught out, a bad liar.

The Democrats, of course, ran Thailand for eight months, from April 10 to December 22, 2010, under martial law which means Thai military was really running the show. During this period, Thai military agencies were not only in charge of effecting censorship—Prachatai’s website was blocked for much of this period as was FACT’s—but in deciding which criminal prosecutions to pursue.

Thai military, with the collusion of the Democrat administration, made the choice to try to expand the definition of reckless lèse majesté laws by effecting third-party intermediary liability which resulted in Chiranuch’s arrest and trial.

The current government has done no better on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, continuing the Dems’ policies of wholesale prosecution and denial of bail for alleged lèse majesté offences and computer “crimes”.

Thai govt has sought to expand citizen liability even further with the arrest of American citizen Joe Gordon merely for allegedly hyperlinking to three translated portions of a book officially banned in Thailand but which is on nearly every Thai home bookshelf, Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. Joe’s liability was never examined by the courts. After a guilty plea, he was sentenced to six years on December 8, 2011.

Prior to Chiranuch’s arrest, ICT ministry officials would call her occasionally to question possibly illegal comments. MICT’s chief censor stated in court Chiranuch was always polite and cooperative and often removed offending material. This time ministry bureaucrats didn’t call Chiranuch about the ten comments. This is strong evidence they planned her arrest and to shut down Prachatai.

In court in February, we heard that none of the comments to the Prachatai webboard directly referenced the monarchy but used coded phrases which it was alleged anyone would understand. “The blue whale” was alleged to refer to HM the Queen, presumably for her girth and Royal colour; “the blind father” could only mean HM the King, whose eyesight is impaired.

Excuse me, but I didn’t find those references obvious at all, at least until they were discussed in open court and the prosecution explained their possible meanings.

Although an optimistic attitude prevailed among a courtroom festival of supporters, one wonders why this trial is taking place at all.

Lèse majesté prosecutions do nothing to protect Thailand’s monarchy. Instead they serve to support the status quo of a wealthy Bangkok elite who serve a Thai military agenda desperate to demonstrate their Royal loyalty to each other.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn’s career is nothing short of dedicated service and commitment as a journalist. Her arrest is Thailand’s shame.

Thailand doesn’t need more martyrs. In fact, we are desperate for nonviolent heroes like Chiranuch.

In February, both defence and prosecution intended to call 13 witnesses. The time allotted, two weeks, was not sufficient so Chiranuch’s trial was postponed until end-August into September. The fact is, all charges against Chiranuch are spurious and must be dropped.

Chiranuch’s case was closely followed by int’l freedom of expression NGOs, many of which sent observers, the Us Embassy, the United Nations and even British Parliament. No one has forgotten Chiranuch. Her case has caused int’l outrage and the tsunami of public opinion is just getting started. We forfeit any right to call ourselves a democracy if the Crown convicts Chiranuch.

One of the first campaign promises of the Puea Thai Party was the release of all political prisoners. If the new govt is honest about this, they must drop all pending charges under the Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté laws.

If reason does not prevail in Thailand, we have no hope for freedom in our future.

This unique case can free Thai netizens and other intermediaries such as ISPs from the constant threat of criminal prosecution for what others post to the Internet.

Such a brave, new decision will require a brave and incisive legal mind. Judge Kampot has shown throughout this trial that he knows how to cut to the chase. But perhaps the actual verdict rests above him. On a personal note, Jiew’s freedom on April 30th would be the best birthday present I’ve had in 62 years!

Please, Judge, do the right thing and stand for honour, justice and freedom of expression.


CJ Hinke

Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)

Previous postings

“Day One: Thai webmaster facing 50 years for lèse majesté postingshttps://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/day-one-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Two: Thailand’s chief censor continues in Prachatai trialhttps://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/day-two-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Three: MICT’s legal advisor testifies: ‘Freedom has its limits’https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/day-three-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Four: MICT and police lawyers testifyhttps://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/day-four-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Five: Police scientist testifies for prosecution” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/day-five-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand-postponed/

“Day Six: Two police ‘IT experts’ testify as Prachatai trial resumes” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/day-six-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Seven: Police lèse majesté “experts” in Prachatai trial” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/day-seven-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Eight: “I can’t remember.” “จำไม่ได้.” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/day-eight-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Nine: Royal connection to Prachatai withhunthttps://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/day-nine-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Ten: “Prachatai gives voice to democracy.” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/day-ten-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Eleven: ““Prachatai exists to promote human rights”  https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/day-eleven-free-speech-on-trial-on-thailand/

“Day Twelve: ‘Judge swamped, justice delayed’” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/day-twelve-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Thirteen: ‘Judge refuses instruction by law expert’” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/day-thirteen-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Fourteen:Webmaster of Thailand’s largest Web forum tells court moderation is “impossible” due to number of comments’”  https://facthai.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/day-fourteen-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

“Day Fifteen:Trial judge insists on written submissions, rejects final witness testimony’” https://facthai.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/day-fifteen-free-speech-on-trial-in-thailand/

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