By Saksith Saiyasombut
Two weeks ago, the webmaster of the Thai news site Prachatai Chiranuch Premchiaporn was arrested after she arrived in Bangkok from a conference on online freedom of expression in Hungary (as previously reported). Chiranuch was charged for violating the Computer Crimes Act regarding reader comments on the website deemed offensive to the monarchy. The complaint was filed by a man in Khon Kaen. Chiranuch was released on bail on the same night. She was previously arrested and in court last year for the same charges that could put her in jail for 50 years.
There was a considerable amount of outcry by international human rights groups, press advocacy groups and even prime minister Abhisit was reportedly concerned by the case, although one could suggest that he more feared the damage to an already ruined international reputation of the country (see Bangkok Pundit for details). Chiranuch's arrest has set off some discussions about her case and the state of freedom of expression in Thailand.
First, in an interview with Pravit Rojanaphruk of The Nation, Chiranuch told she was shocked upon her arrest at the airport and voiced doubts about her case(s). Also, she talked about the ramifications of her most recent arrest:
[Pravit] What will you do next?
[Chiranuch] We'll have to see if the Office of the Attorney-General will forward the cases to court or not. My first [case for violating computer crime law] is already taking years. After getting bail, I have to travel to Khon Kaen once a month and it's a burden.
P: How has this affected your life?
C: I have doubts about the judicial process. In this case, if someone wants to hurt you, the person can lodge a police complaint in a far-flung province and the suspect has to travel far. This incurs real expenses.
P: Do you know the person who has pressed charges against you?
C: No, I have never met this person, though I have learned that he's a real-estate businessman based in Khon Kaen.
"Facing charges two years later in another province", Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation, September 30, 2010
The last sentence highlights one of the main problems of the lèse majesté law, since virtually every person can file such a complaint with the police and the police would have to go after every case. How ridiculous these procedures can go, was shown recently in the case of actor Pongpat Wachirabanjong, who despite or because of the widely-applauded speech praising the kinggot slapped with a lèse majesté complaint as well - in his case though, it was thrown out in lightning speed.
The Thai Netizen Network has analyzed the case and revealed more details:
After considering that comments related to the interview of Chotisak Onsoong, who refused to stand for the royal anthem in a theater, on Prachatai, which attracted more than 200 comments within the first week of published, and Sameskyboard.com on April 28, 2008 deemed lese majeste, Sunimit Jirasuk, a Khon Kaen businessman, went to the police station and filed charges against Chiranuch and Samesky webmaster Thanapol Eawsakul for publicizing and persuading others to approve, praise and imitate Chotisak’s ‘disloyal’ act, Manager Online reports. (...)
“Most of the comments approve Chotisak’s act, indicating that they want to overthrow the monarchy. It is believable that letting people freely express their opinions regarding the issue on the Internet indicates that [the webmasters] want to be the center of the people who want to undermine the throne. Therefore, both webmasters should be charged,” Manager online reported Sunimit’s remark. (...)
Chiranuch, who has travelled abroad four times since the court issued the warrant, said she has never seen an arrest warrant or a summon letter before and never had trouble passing through the immigration counter at the airport. This is similar to Thanapol from Sameskybooks.org who is reportedly facing the same charges. Thanapol said he has gone abroad once after the arrest warrants was supposedly made, but never had problem passing through the immigration police counter and had never seen any legal document from Khon Kaen police. (...)
A reliable anonymous source said the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology and a police department specifically dealing with cyber crime did not acknowledge and did not order the arrest. The source further observed that the arrest followed police reshuffle in August.
"Analysis On Chiranuch Latest Charges And Arrest", Thai Netizen Network, October 2, 2010
The aforementioned businessman from Khon Kaen has also filed against Chotisak himself and was quoted that he "could not accept that Chotisak and friends claimed to be Thai" (Bangkok Pundit has more).
Also, as pointed out in the article, the timing of the arrest is bears an ironic coincidence since Abhisit was out of the country and said this in a speech:
He also defended himself against accusations of damaging media freedoms, saying that only outlets which "incite violence" had been closed. "I'm not sure whether you'd allow any special station for Al-Qaeda here," he told his mostly American audience.
"Thailand could hold early 2011 elections: PM", AFP, September 25, 2010
The Bangkok Post points out in a very critical story about the ongoing repression against freedom of expression and the media. Key excerpt:
There are many problems with the massive media crackdown by the Abhisit government. The most obvious is the continual use of the Computer Crime Act to intimidate and silence websites, blogs, videos and other forms of legitimate media. The thousands of times this law has been invoked is telling. It means that authorities either cannot or will not bring normal legal charges. It is enormously discriminatory. If an article, a photo or a video appears in a newspaper or on a TV station it is legal; but because it is on the internet, it is not. (...)
Ms Chiranuch has been the personification of an unseemly, unnecessary and eventually self-defeating government policy. The current government of Mr Abhisit did not start the persecution but it has pursued it more aggressively than its predecessors. They have brought in the military in the form of the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES). (...) It is clear to all observers that the government considers Prachatai a media enemy, and has used strong-arm tactics against it.
"Persecution of the media", Bangkok Post, September 28, 2010
While radio and TV stations (and to a certain extend the print media) can be monitored and easily controlled, the internet is from the viewpoint of the authorities a frustratingly, uncontrollable, wild stream of diverse opinions and footage, no matter their validity, authenticity or truth.
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith.