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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Giles Ji Ungpakorn: The Arrest of Chiranuch Premchaiporn

Prachatai web manager arrested for the second time by the military junta

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, web manager of the independent Thai online newspaper Prachatai, was arrested for the second time on 24th September 2010, at Bangkok’s international airport. Ironically she was returning from the “Internet Liberty 2010″ conference in Hungary. The arrest was reported to be in response to an alleged incident in the north-east town of Khon Kaen but there is much confusion about the actual date of this incident. The Khon Kaen police claim that they issued an arrest warrant for Ms Chiranuch back in September 2009 on lèse majesté and computer crimes charges. It beggars belief why the Thai police have taken a whole year to locate such a prominent person whose office is well known to them already. Ms Chiranuch stated that she never received any police summons or any documentation prior to her arrest. This indicates both incompetence and possibly illegal behaviour by the Thai police.

In an interview with Matichon daily newspaper, Police Lieutenant General Chuchapong Pongsuwan, the officer in charge of the case, stated that a complaint was made to the Khon Kaen police in 2008 that Ms Chiranuch had committed “lèse majesté”. After discussions with the National Police Bureau, Khon Kaen police issued an arrest warrant. When asked why Ms Chiranuch was not issued with a summons first, according to usual procedure, Police Lieutenant General Chuchapong Pongsuwan claimed that “it was not necessary” since the offence was “extremely serious”. Yet in other lèse majesté cases defendants have been issued with summonses first and if this was such a “serious case” why did they take a year to locate Ms Chiranuch?

Last year the offices of Prachatai in Bangkok were raided by the Crime Suppression police on the 6th March 2009. Ms Chiranuch was arrested on accusations of allowing web-board comments with a lèse majesté content. She was charged on the 31st March 2010 under the Computer Crimes Act. Ms Chiranuch had to wait nearly four hours before bail was approved with a 300,000 baht bond, calculated on her salary as a nursing sister, for not removing comments posted on a web-board deemed offensive to the monarchy fast enough to satisfy the government censors. On April 7th, Ms Chiranuch was called to Royal Thai Police headquarters for further investigation. Thai police laid nine new charges against her resulting from the information she herself gave them after her arrest. According to FACT (Freedom Against Censorship Thailand) these additional charges under the computer crime law mean that Ms Chiranuch is facing 50 years in prison for comments she did not create. The Criminal Court has set February 2011 to begin proceedings against her for these earlier charges.

Back in March 2009, the military installed Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, told an audience at St John’s College, Oxford that he had “sorted out” Chiranuch’s case and that it was a “misunderstanding by the police”. The fact that the case has proceeded and that Ms Chiranuch has been arrested for a second time proves that Abhisit is prepared to lie in order to appear to be an upholder of democracy. The deliberate killing of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in April and May 2010 on his watch, in order to avoid an election, merely emphasises the point.

The repeated arrest and multiple charges against the Prachatai web manager add up to gross harassment and a serious infringement of the freedom of the media. Prachatai is an independent, non-profit, daily web newspaper, originally established in June 2004 by Jon Ungpakorn and other social activists. Its website states that Prachatai’s objectives are:

   1. To provide the Thai public with access to reliable news and information relevant to developing and strengthening the democratic functions of Thai civil society.
   2. To focus news coverage on the problems, concerns, activities and accomplishments of local communities and civil society movements and organisations.
   3. To strive for freedom and independence of Thai news media.
   4. To promote active public participation in Thai news media.

Since the military coup against an elected government in 2006, Prachatai has played a crucial role in providing independent news coverage in an era when the junta has instigated draconian censorship and control of all forms of media. During this time Prachatai has been blocked by government censors at least 3 times and has had to re-establish its website each time.

In January 2010 U.S. based Human Rights Watch wrote that: “While Prime Minister Abhisit sometimes said the right things about human rights in 2009, his actions didn’t match his words. The government continually undermined respect for human rights and due process of law in Thailand.” The report went on to state that: “Democracy in Thailand suffers badly from draconian laws on lèse majesté and cyber crimes. A climate of fear looms over civil discourse and in cyberspace as a result of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression under the Abhisit government.”


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