BANGKOK—A webmaster accused of failing to act quickly enough to remove internet posts deemed insulting to Thailand’s royalty is waiting to learn her fate in a case highlighting computer-crime laws that rights groups have decried as an assault on freedom of speech.
If found guilty in a Bangkok court, Chiranuch Premchaiporn will face up to 20 years in jail for 10 comments posted on a now-defunct web board by readers she says she does not know.
The case has drawn sharp criticism from international rights groups who have expressed deep concern over Thailand’s computer-crime laws, which were enacted in 2007 under an interim, unelected post-coup government. The laws address hacking and other online offenses, but also bar the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security, which includes defaming the monarchy.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said last week that the prosecution of Chiranuch “sends a chilling message to webmasters and Internet companies.”
Chiranuch’s newspaper, Prachatai, was founded by several respected journalists, senators and press freedom activists to serve as an independent, nonprofit, daily Internet newspaper. It has attracted an audience of critics of the status quo, especially on the web board where the comments at issue in the court case were posted in 2009.
Prosecutors say Chiranuch was guilty of “intentionally supporting or consenting” to post unlawful content by failing to delete the offending comments quickly enough. Her lawyers point out, among other arguments, that there are no guidelines on the matter.
Each posting carries a maximum five-year prison sentence, but since she faces 10 counts, the law limits the maximum penalty to 20 years.
Chiranuch is the first webmaster prosecuted under the law and her case could set a precedent for other online companies here.
The prosecution of Chiranuch—widely known by her nickname Jiew—has become a cause célèbre not only in Thailand but around the world.
Last year she was one of three winners of the Courage in Journalism award given by the International Women’s Media Foundation, and also one of 48 global writers given grants under a Human Rights Watch program for their commitment to free expression and courage in the face of persecution.
Chiranuch was initially detained but was granted bail and the freedom to travel abroad. In most cases directly involving charges of insulting the monarchy, known as lese majeste, bail has been denied.
Chiranuch’s case is inextricably linked to Thailand’s fractious politics of recent years, as the country’s traditional ruling class—allying big business, the military and royalists—has been desperately fighting to retain reverence for the monarchy and their influence over politics.
Most people still respect 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but the evident involvement of palace circles in supporting a 2006 military coup against elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra opened the royal institution up to unprecedented criticism and questioning, and the internet allowed such doubts to circulate widely.
The Computer Crime Act has been applied where the authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute under the country’s lese majeste law, which mandates a jail term of three to 15 years for “whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the regent.” That law, believed to be the harshest of its sort in the world, has also come in for sharp criticism.
Supinya Klangnarong, a prominent media reform activist, said after Jiew’s arrest that the Computer Crime Act “has become a political tool of the state” to close websites and arrest people.
Thailand’s freedom of speech reputation has taken a battering in recent years, as successive governments have tried to suppress political opposition. Its standing in the Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders slid to 137th out of 179 last year from 65th in 2002, when the ratings were initiated.