Chiranuch Premchaiporn's trial over computer crime charges began yesterday and attracted some 40 supporters and observers, all of whom are interested to see how this case against the freedom of expression pans out. The accused is the director of the non-profit online newspaper Prachatai.com.
The Information and Communication Technology Ministry is charging Chiranuch of violating the computer crime law by failing to immediately remove 10 anonymous postings that allegedly defamed the monarchy from her website's webboard. According to the plaintiff, Chiranuch, as director of Prachatai.com, should be held legally responsible as she was in charge of the board. The webboard has been removed since last July. If found guilty, she could face a combined prison term of up to 50 years.
"Obviously, it's an important test case where Internet freedom in Thailand is concerned. Obviously, the prosecutor is trying to take the case down the lese majeste track," said Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Crispin, who was present at the trial as an observer, said that since Chiranuch is a third party in the alleged crime, she should not be held responsible for anonymous users who cannot be prosecuted.
"It is at this juncture where the right to freedom of expression and information will be determined," Chuwat Rerksirisuk, editor of Prachatai.com, said.
The first witness to testify and be cross-examined yesterday was Aree Jiworarak from the ICT Ministry. He told the four judges that Chiranuch should have screened the comments before allowing them to be posted on the website.
Some observers told The Nation that this suggestion goes against the nature of online communication, which is fluid and instantaneous.
In the cross-examination by Chiranuch's lawyers, Aree was asked if he could differentiate between remarks that slandered the monarchy and those that were a mere expression of opposition or disapproval of conduct related to the 2006 coup.
"Thailand has been able to survive so far because of the monarchy. We have a big debt of gratitude and what can be endured [without speaking out] should be done," Aree told the court.
In response to this, one Thai observer told The Nation that criticism should not be confused with libel.
During the testimony, Aree also warned that there were "many more" cases against Prachatai.com in the pipeline.
While Chiranuch appeared calm and in good spirits, observers remained divided as to what will happen in the end. "This case will be used as an example [to scare others]," an observer who asked not to be named said.
The next hearing is on Tuesday and both sides have 13 witnesses lined up.