Thai Message Board Manager Is Given Suspended Prison Sentence-NYT

June 1, 2012

Thomas Fuller and Kevin Drew

The New York Times: May 30, 2012


A Thai court sentenced the manager of an Internet message board to a one-year suspended prison term on Wednesday for comments posted by users that insulted the Thai royal family. The sentence was immediately condemned by Google and human rights groups.

The manager of the site, Prachatai, a popular forum for discussions about politics and culture, was convicted of lèse-majesté, as royal insults are known, under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act. Courts in Thailand have jailed people convicted of lèse-majesté with increasing frequency in recent years, but the verdict on Wednesday was unusual in that the defendant, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, was not the author of the offending comments; she was just the Web master of the site that hosted them.

Taj Meadows, a spokesman for Google, said in an e-mailed statement that the verdict was “a serious threat to the future of the Internet in Thailand.”

“Telephone companies are not penalized for things people say on the phone, and responsible Web site owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites — but Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act is being used to do just that,” Mr. Meadows said.

The Computer Crimes Act is controversial in Thailand partly because it was enacted by an unelected government installed after the military coup in 2006. The act also has a far-reaching extraterritorial feature built in: an American citizen was sentenced to two and a half years in prison last year for uploading from his computer in the United States a translation of a book banned in Thailand. He was arrested during a visit to Thailand.

In Ms. Chiranuch’s case, Judge Kampol Rungrat ruled that she was liable for one out of 10 comments posted on Prachatai. But the judge appeared ambivalent in making the ruling. Prosecutors could not prove that Ms. Chiranuch “intentionally supported” the insulting comments and it would be “unfair” to expect that a Web master could immediately remove offending comments from a Web site, he said. Under the law, however, it was nonetheless Ms. Chiranuch’s “duty and responsibility” to remove them, the judge ruled.

Ms. Chiranuch had argued that she removed the comments as soon as she was made aware of them. The judge agreed in all but one instance, and said leaving a comment for 20 days was beyond a reasonable period of time. The sentence was suspended because she had no previous convictions.

Benjamin Zawacki, a Thailand researcher for Amnesty International, said the verdict would discourage anyone wanting to start up an Internet business in Thailand.

“International media corporations need to sit up and take notice,” he said. “Even ‘liking’ something on Facebook could have legal implications.”

The Chiranuch case illustrated the larger question of responsibility for speech in the digital age.

Faced with a torrent of digital content — 72 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube every minute — some governments are trying to put the responsibility for policing offensive or illegal content on intermediaries like Facebook, YouTube or any services that allow or encourage public participation.

Some governments seek to control the Internet directly. China, Cuba, North Korea, Singapore, Syria and Vietnam are among countries with significant controls over politically related content. Iran is seeking to build a “halal” Internet.

Myanmar, however, lifted its heavy controls last year.

In Thailand’s case, control over the Internet has been closely intertwined with the issue of the monarchy. Thailand’s freewheeling society has been anything but stifling for over the years. But King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 84 and Thais are anxious both about succession and the future of the institution over all. Successive governments have stepped up enforcement of the country’s lèse-majesté laws.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Wednesday’s conviction had “added to a climate of fear and self-censorship in Thailand’s media” and was a “new low in Thailand’s intolerance of free speech.”

Thomas Fuller reported from Bangkok, and Kevin Drew from Hong Kong.


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