FACTorial: Chiranuch guilty, Judge Kampol got it wrong
June 1, 2012
Chiranuch, and all netizens, are now criminals in Thailand
Over 100 observers, supporters and media thronged Bangkok’s Criminal Court, including diplomatic representatives from the embassies to Thailand of at least eleven countries, to hear the final countdown for intrepid Thai journalist, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, on charges of lèse majesté.
Chiranuch, who was honoured in 2011 with the Courage in Journalism award by the International Women’s Media Foundation and with Human Right Watch’s Hellman/Hammett Award for journalists under threat. In 2012, Chiranuch was honoured as one of Time Magazine’s Women in the World: 150 Fearless Women,
Chiranuch faced down 10 counts of lèse majesté in a 15-day trial under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act 2007 promulgated by a government by military coup d’etat. The webmaster was one of only a handful of accused to go head-to-head with Thai government and plead not guilty.
The 10 charges, each carrying a potential sentence of five years in prison, mitigated to ‘only’ 20 years because they involved a single law, did not originate with Chiranuch. Each of the charges resulted from a comment made pseudonymously to the public Prachatai webboard, meant to encourage a public conversation.
Testimony elicited that Thailand’s government censor, the ICT ministry, had previously requested of Chiranuch takedowns of materials they found objectionable. And she had always cooperated.
However, during the military coup period of intense political speculation, Pracharai found itself overwhelmed by a volume of thousands of public comments every day. The ICT ministry must have been similarly swamped because, by action or omission, no request was made to Prachatai for removal.
There may well have been sinister political actors at work to take down Prachatai. In any case, when martial law was invoked in April 2010 during extrajudicial murders by Thailand’s military, Prachatai was the first website to be deleted, resulting in a high-tech cat-and-mouse game as Prachatai struggled to remain available…and succeeded.
This may well have provided politicians the incentive to directly challenge Prachatai’s webmaster in a major, and unnecessary, daytime police raid resulting in the seizure of Prachatai’s servers and Chiranuch’s personal laptop.
As webboard comments were analysed 10 were found to be possible lèse majesté. However, the lèse majesté statutes of Thailand’s Criminal Code are very specific, engaging the precision of any democratic rule of law. The “crime” of lèse majesté means only one thing: to threaten, insult or defame Thailand’s monarchy.
Unfortunately for public prosecutors, none of these three were apparent in any of the comments made on Prachatai. In fact, the posters of all ten comments were personally identified and never prosecuted, save one: she was acquitted. Instead, government posted a bullseye on Chiranuch Premchaiporn.
Chiranuch’s seminal case involving freedom of expression and a free media became a cause célèbre for media and human rights activists worldwide. Suddenly, Thailand’s human rights record was under scrutiny with even the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression weighing in in her favour.
The result was that Thai courts could not find her not guilty, imagining all kinds of demons in the closet just waiting to take advantage of any loophole in the laws, but nor could they sentence her to prison.
Today’s resulting verdict was both compromise and capitulation. Chiranuch was found not guilty of allowing nine of the webboard comments to remain for an extended period of time but guilty of one which remain unnoticed, and therefore unremoved, for 20 days. The judge reasoned that this omission must mean that the webmaster agreed with the comment.
In fact, webmasters are human. They need food and rest and entertainment and diversion and even holidays just like everyone.
If Chiranuch had been requested to take down this comment overlooked, no doubt she would have, as she had acquiesced to every single MICT request in the past.
The comment was similarly overlooked by the censors at the ICT ministry but, unfortunately, we did not see them so accused in court to defend their position.
Every intermediary in Thailand can now be charged on the flimsiest of pretexts to curb dissent. This can only be described as the next level in Thai government’s creation of a police state in which freedom of expression is just a dream. Thailand is the next Burma, complete with the military in firm control.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn was sentenced today to eight months in prison, reduced from one year, suspended due to her testimony on her own behalf which the court found useful in its deliberations, and a THB20,000 fine, reduced from THB30,000.
Judge Kampol’s ‘lenient’ decision was neither compromise nor capitulation reflecting the reality of the Internet as a tool for freedom of expression. The fact that Chiranuch did not win an outright acquittal is a barely-veiled threat against the rest of us.
Judge Kampol signalled netizens a clear message in his decision:
Chiranuch should never have been convicted on the words of another. Thai courts have now established a precedent in which we must all be our brothers’ keepers. Government is no longer required to act as policeman and censor, we are.
In expanding the definition of lèse majesté to personal culpability for the free speech of someone else, Chiranuch Premchaiporn was not the only person found guilty in Criminal Court today.
You and I, as netizens, can be charged thus at any given moment, with police raids and seizure of our computers at daybreak. We were all found guilty today. No doubt Thai government has thrown down a gauntlet to see more and more of us guilty tomorrow.
Criminal court, in the very best of circumstances, is a lonely place to be, a hyperreality in which one’s very freedom is at stake. It is great measure of Jiew’s courage to have faced this monster alone. She did it for freedom for all of us.
Jiew’s new freedom may not last long. She was arrested at Bangkok’s international airport on September 24, 2010 on her return from Google’s Internet at Liberty 2010 conference in Budapest. She stands accused of lèse majesté by Khon Kaen businessman Sunimit Jirasuk for readers’ comments appearing on Prachatai in April 2008. Chiranuch was charged using Articles 112, 116 and the Computer Crimes Act.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn is waiting trial on THB 200,000 bail and still faces 20 years in prison.
Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)