Thai High Court Upholds Conviction for Webmaster

By Grant Peck 24 December 2015

BANGKOK — Thailand’s Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the 2012 conviction of a webmaster for not acting quickly enough to delete online comments deemed insulting to the country’s monarchy, a decision decried by rights advocates as another blow to freedom of expression.

The court affirmed the eight-month prison term—suspended for a year—and 20,000 baht ($555) fine given Chiranuch Premchaiporn, a director of the news website Prachatai, on whose web board the offending comments were posted by outside parties in 2008.

The court’s decision “sets an appalling precedent for freedom of expression—particularly online—in a climate where official contempt for free speech has hit new lows,” the human rights group Amnesty International said.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision highlights how the Thai authorities are using and abusing a range of laws to enforce direct censorship and impose a climate of self-censorship,” it said.

Chiranuch had faced up to 20 years in prison under Thailand’s broadly defined Computer Crime Act for failing to quickly remove 10 reader comments posted on the web board. She was convicted over one comment that remained online for 20 days. Because of the legal vulnerability of being held responsible for third-person postings, Prachatai closed the web board after Chiranuch was charged, although its main news site is still in operation.

While much of the 2007 Computer Crime Act covers offenses associated with hacking, several provisions have been applied to expression of political opinions that are deemed “likely to damage the country’s security or cause a public panic.” Postings on social media that are prosecuted under a separate lese majeste law, which prohibits defamation of the monarchy, almost automatically fall into this category.

The provision holding intermediaries responsible, such as in Chiranuch’s case, is particularly controversial.

The watchdog group iLaw, which monitors political cases, said Wednesday’s ruling was the first time the Supreme Court has upheld the provision holding intermediaries responsible for failing to quickly remove illegal content uploaded by outside parties.

“This standard affirms the atmosphere of fear in Thai Internet society,” said iLaw’s Yingcheep Atchanont. “This Supreme Court verdict sends a message to all webmasters or content providers that they have to monitor their computer system more closely. The atmosphere of self-censorship by intermediaries will remain very strict.”

Prachatai was founded by several respected journalists, senators and press freedom activists to be an independent, nonprofit, daily Internet newspaper. It has attracted an audience of critics of the status quo, especially on its now-defunct web board.