Athit Perawongmetha for the International Herald Tribune
By SETH MYDANS
Published: November 1, 2010BANGKOK — Chiranuch Premchaiporn was returning home from an international conference on Internet freedom when Thai immigration officers pulled her aside and told her she was under arrest.
“I was shocked,” said Ms. Chiranuch, director of a prominent news Web site called Prachatai. “On what charge? At first I got mad. I wanted to go home. I wanted to get some rest after a long flight.”
Under Thailand’s tightening campaign of censorship, Ms. Chiranuch, 32, had already been charged in March with Internet crimes for political postings on her Web site’s open forum. She is scheduled to go to court in February to hear charges in that case, which could bring her as many as 50 years in prison.
And now at the airport in September she faced a second arrest for anonymous postings on her Web site, although in both cases she was not the writer.
“I began to feel victimized, and I hate that,” said Ms. Chiranuch. “When you are arrested it shows that you have a lack of power. I felt I was too weak for them, and I was an easy target. I don’t like to be an easy target.”
She is free now on bail totaling 500,000 baht, or about $17,000, for both cases and must report to the police every month following her most recent arrest.
A small, cheerful woman who sometimes wears a sparkly skirt, Ms. Chiranuch has come to personify a wide-ranging campaign of censorship that has shut down a satellite television station and scores of small radio stations as well as tens of thousands of Internet sites, according to press monitors here.
The government is seeking to silence an aggressive and sometimes violent opposition, which it says has continued to plot against it since a two-month occupation of parts of Bangkok by “red shirt” protesters was crushed by force on May 19.
“There’s always that difficulty in terms of the balance that you have to make sure that you maintain the law, you keep law and order, and making sure that you’re not restricting peoples’ rights,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said last month in an interview with the International Herald Tribune.
Ms. Chiranuch’s case has become a rallying cry for opponents of Mr. Abhisit’s campaign of censorship and has drawn criticism from human rights and free speech advocacy groups abroad.
“The way Thai authorities are behaving towards Chiranuch is unacceptable,” the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. “She is being treated like a criminal although she is regarded internationally as an expert in online journalism.”
The government has shut down Prachatai several times and the site continues to reopen under new addresses, but now without the public forum, which Ms. Chiranuch discontinued in July.
“I informed our readers and let them know we could not provide this service any more,” she said. “The situation seemed too dangerous for the people, and beyond our ability to handle.”
If her Web site takes sides, she said, it is on the side of openness to opposing points of view, a stand that puts it at odds with the government’s attempt to control information.
“I think this is an important voice that society needs to hear,” she said of the dissenting postings that predominate on Prachatai. “And when we hear, we can understand more, and real reconciliation can happen.”
In addition to computer crimes, her second arrest carried the more serious charge of insulting the monarchy, an accusation that carries a maximum 15-year prison term and has often been used as a political weapon.
The postings that led to this case were comments on the arrest of a man who had also been charged with insulting the monarchy after he refused to stand for the playing of the royal anthem in a movie theater.
Both Ms. Chiranuch's cases are unusual in charging a third party — the Internet carrier — for comments by anonymous outsiders.
“If someone went to a coffee shop and wants to write something on a chair or table top to insult the monarchy,” she said, “that’s the responsibility of the coffee shop?”
While the cases against her move slowly through the judicial system, she continues to manage the Web site, with its 14 staff members, under the direction of Jon Ungpakorn, a former senator and an outspoken advocate of democracy.
On the wall behind her desk, near souvenir toy animals, videotapes of the movie “Kill Bill” and stacks of newspapers, she has tacked a handwritten note in English that says, “Free Jiew,” her nickname.
On another wall, a map produced by Freedom House, the international rights body, shows that the press in Thailand has slipped from “free” to only “partly free.”
Thailand has also dropped in an annual “freedom index,” updated last week by Reporters Without Borders, which ranked it at 153 on a list of 178 countries, nestled between Azerbaijan and Belarus.
When the index was established in 2002, Thailand ranked 65. By last year it had slipped to 130.
“Press freedom, some might say, is heading down farther and we don’t yet see how deep it will sink,” said Ubonrat Siriyuwasak, a scholar of the media who is retired from the faculty of communications at Chulalongkorn University.
“At first glance it looks to a lot of people as if there is still freedom of the press,” she said. “But if we take a closer look, we have to conclude that this is a serious situation because opposition opinion has been in a sense wiped out or must go underground.”
In a recent commentary, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, described Ms. Chiranuch’s troubles as part of a “‘soft’ civil-military authoritarianism,” nuanced and disguised for acceptance in an increasingly globalized world.
He said her case “epitomizes a plethora of other cases that have found little voice because of the climate of fear, intimidation and coercion attendant with civil-military hybrid repression.”
When her cases come to court, Ms. Chiranuch said she is determined to plead not guilty, although this could mean a longer sentence if she is convicted.
Asked if she had been tempted to move into a less precarious line of work, she said, “I couldn’t find another thing that is as interesting as what I do now.”
And in any case, she said, “Even if I quit, the threat would not stop. The process continues.”