On Friday February 4 journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn will attend Bangkok Criminal Court to face charges related to Thailand’s computer crimes and lèse majesté laws.
Known by her nickname Jiew, Chiranuch is a widely recognised authority on internet journalism. She is director and webmaster of the Prachatai.com website and is a founding member of Thai Netizen Network, a digital rights group.
She was arrested at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok, on September 24 2010 after returning from a conference on internet liberty in Hungary and a United Nations internet governance forum in Lithuania.
She is facing two separate sets of charges. Those related to her September 2010 arrest are in response to a complaint made on April 28 2008 about comments posted on Prachatai.com. The article the comments appeared on featured an interview with Chotisak Onsoong, a political activist who was charged with insulting the monarchy in a cinema. In Thailand, before a movie is screened the royal anthem is played and the audience stands to pay their respects to the Thai King. Chotisak is accused of failing to stand up during a performance of the anthem in 2007.
The five comments cited in the complaint were later removed by Prachatai.com staff. For allegedly failing to remove them swiftly enough, Chiranuch is charged with “defaming, insulting or threatening the king and royal family” [article 112 of the 1956 criminal code], “public statements inciting unrest” [article 112 of the criminal code], and “supporting or being responsible for crimes linked to the use of computers” [articles 114,115 of the Computer-Related Crimes Act, 2007]. She could face up to 32 years in prison for these charges.
Jiew has insisted that Prachatai always complied with the authorities whenever asked to delete comments. She also says that no request was made about the five comments below the Chotisak interview.
The previous set of charges were for a similar incident also in 2008, in which Jiew is again accused of failing to remove comments from Prachatai with sufficient speed. Prachatai.com was contacted by authorities about each of these comments, and compliantly removed them. However the 10 comments were visible on the site for between 1 and 15 days. Jiew could face up to 50 years in prison for charges related to these 10 comments.
Jiew was not the author of any of the comments, but is facing a potential 82 years in jail for briefly hosting them. “If someone went to a coffee shop and wants to write something on a chair or table top to insult the monarchy, that’s the responsibility of the coffee shop?”, she asked in an interview with the New York Times.
Thanapol Eawsakul, webmaster of the Sameskyboard.com website, which also featured the Chotisak interview, faces similar charges.
Many people believe that the arrests were politically motivated. Thai mainstream media is mostly owned by, and supportive of, the political elite. The independent Prachatai news site features a much wider spectrum of opinion, much of it critical of the government and status quo. Jiew’s supporters draw attention to the fact that the police have seemingly not deemed it necessary to prove that the remarks in question actually qualified as lèse majesté. Neither have the police made any great effort to seek out the authors of the comments.
Jiew and numerous friends on Facebook have added a badge to their Facebook profile images, showing the number 112 with a cross through it — indicating opposition to article 112 of the Thai criminal code: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of 3 to 15 years.”
An appropriate period
Comments on the Prachatai “open forum”, now closed, were “post-moderated”, meaning that the site editors did not get to vet user-generated content before it was published. The accusation against Jiew is that comments remained on the site for longer than what police have described as “an appropriate period”. Presumably if the content had been removed within the “appropriate period”, the publishers would not be considered responsible for the content. Conversely, if illegal content remains for longer than the “appropriate period”, the Computer-Rleated Crimes Act is being interpreted such that the publishers are guilty either of negligence or tacit approval.
The charges assume little or no legal distinction between failing to remove comments and deliberately allowing comments to remain.
The length of the “appropriate period” remains undefined. Thai Netizen Network board member Sarinee Achavanuntakul has argued that the role of a webmaster — fielding content from the wider public — is not analogous to that of an editor, who gets prior sight of content and therefore takes direct responsibility for it. “The nature of the Internet is that information flows very fast. It would post a very high cost for the intermediary if they are expected to have to screen everything before being published,” she said.
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