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Thai webmaster facing 50 years for lèse majesté postings

Day One – Free speech on trial in Thailand

The trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, nicknamed Jiew, opened on Friday at Bangkok’s Criminal Court, the venue changed to Courtroom 701. A larger courtroom was needed due to an unprecedented number of observers from numerous Thai and foreign NGOs, local and international media, and foreign embassies.

Chiranuch is a founding signer to Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) and an activist with Than Netizen Network.

The public prosecutor opened Thai government’s case against Chiranuch, webmaster of Thailand’s only independent news portal, Prachatai.com.

Chiranuch has been charged with ten violations of the country’s draconian and unconstitutional Computer Crimes Act which was the first law to be passed by Thailand’s military coup legislature in 2007. Each charge carries a sentence of five years in prison. However, Thailand’s Constitution carries specific protections for free expression which cannot be amended by any lesser law.

However, Chiranuch has not been charged for making such comments herself. Rather, she faces prison stemming from pseudonymous postings and comments to Prachatai’s public webboard in mid-2008, although she was not arrested until March 2009.

Chiranuch has been charged because it is alleged she failed to delete the lèse majesté comments quickly enough from Prachatai, allowing them to remain eleven days in total.

The morning session opened with the first prosecution witness, Aree Jivorarak, chief of Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology’s IT Regulation Bureau. The chief judge, the prosecutor and the witness all spoke in subdued tones without amplification as the content of the postings were read aloud by the witness, nearly inaudible in the public gallery.

Repetition of lèse majesté by anyone is, of course, also lèse majesté and often courts are cleared of the public in such trials. In this case, we were not able to hear them anyway.

The witness seemed frequently confused by the questions posed by the prosecution who seemed on many occasions to lead or direct the MICT censor in his replies.

Thailand’s chief censor smiled and waved to Chiranuch in the dock whom he acknowledged he had consulted frequently and noted that she had always been cooperative and receptive in removing such comments from the Prachatai webboard. Aree also acknowledged that, during the period which is the subject of this trial, MICT had not informed the webmaster about the offending comments.

These charges also resulted in the closure of Prachatai’s public web forum in July 2010. Prachatai was the only forum where netizens could express an opinion on issues of the day. Now we have none.

The judges were all quite young and Chiranuch’s supporters had hope that they might have some Internet experience. However, questions from the bench were required of Aree as to the working definitions of URL, IP address, DNS and ISP. The youth of the judges and a single public prosecutor belied the serious weight Thai government gives to this case.

The afternoon session was given over to the defence bar, a team of three experienced human rights advocates. Even the judges laughed aloud when trial observers broke into spontaneous applause when the sound system was turned on so we could finally hear the proceedings.

Defence cross-examination elicited some surprising testimony from the government’s witness. The ICT ministry, for example, seemed unaware that Prachatai is governed by the directors of a foundation consisting of numerous prominent academics.

When questions were posed about who in government exactly decides content is illegal and what criteria are used to judge such content as lèse majesté, the witness became increasingly vague. Aree stated such decisions were made in committee from various ministries and the Royal Thai Police. However, he was unable not only to name the committee members or their specific agencies but was unsure of the agencies represented themselves.

Thailand’s chief censor also exhibited confusion over what content was considered ‘inappropriate’ and which content was clearly illegal by precise legal definition. Aree stated that there was little oversight over MICT’s censors who would know lèse majesté when they saw it!

There were numerous direct questions posed to the bureaucrat regarding the exact context of lèse majesté. Aree failed to reply to several of these defence questions and sat mute, with no direction the court to answer.

The MICT censor chief also questioned the intentions of the public participants in Prachatai’s web forum. Aree said he also found many of Prachatai’s news articles to be ‘inappropriate’ and solely intended to criticise Thai government.

The witness also relied overwhelmingly on presumption as all ten comments alleged to be defaming the monarchy were cast in indirect terms. He stated that any reader would know that reference to “the blue whale” would know the code for Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, whose Royal colour is blue. That any Thai would know “the blind father” referred to His Majesty King Bhumibol who is sight impaired from youth.

However, when Aree was shown ten pages of comments from Prachatai’s webboard and asked by the defence to mark those he considered lèse majesté, he marked only three items which were not disclosed by the court.

MICT’s bureaucrat also acknowledged that the ministry had tracked the posters of the pseudonymous comments to Prachatai by IP address but only one of them had been charged. This may well be the netizen acquitted last week.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with members of the Thai Netizen Network in December 2009 and stated the Computer Crimes Act would never be used to suppress citizen media or free public expression.

He has commented publicly at least three times on the Prachatai case, stating the arrest of Chiranuch was the ‘most regrettable’ of his tenure, promising to look into the case and, finally expressing surprise the case against Chiranuch had not been dropped.

The government has had more than two years to drop these spurious charges. The prime minister lies. Under his administration, Thailand has chosen to make the Internet its enemy. We are the Internet generation and Thailand is making war on its people.

Thailand’s iLaw Foundation found in December 2010 that 185 people had been charged under the Computer Crimes Act in a four year period. Thai government is systematically using this law to arrest Thai netizens. Academic Dr. David Streckfuss estimates any lèse majesté charge carries a 98% conviction rate which has resulted in sentences up to 18 years. He estimates 172 such arrests in 2009 alone.

Furthermore, Thailand has blocked 425,296 web pages during the period of martial law April 7 to December 22, 2010 by emergency decree. Prachatai was among the first websites blocked. Not one of those websites has been unblocked since the expiration of emergency powers. iLaw estimates that this number is rising by approximately 690 new blocks per day.

The government plans to call 14 witnesses as does the defence. It is highly unlikely Chiranuch’s trial will be completed in the eight days allotted by the court.

Chiranuch’s case is a landmark for the climate of free expression in Thailand. What is decided by this court will determine whether we live in a democracy governed by human rights and civil liberties or whether we are governed by a military junta at their whim.

For further background see “Overview of Chiranuch’s free speech trial” at http://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/overview-of-chiranuch’s-free-speech-trial-thai-netizen/.

Unfortunately, Chiranuch’s trial was not the only lèse majesté case starting trial in Bangkok’s Criminal Court today. NorPhorChorUSA webmaster Tantawut Taweewarodomkul, nicknamed Kenny, was also facing lèse majesté charges under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act as well as similar Criminal Code charges.

Kenny has been held without bail since April 2010. NorPhorChor is an acronym for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, commonly known as the Redshirts. The atmosphere in Courtroom 906 was far more serious.

If reason does not prevail in Thailand, we have no hope for freedom in our future.

The trials resume Tuesday, February 8, at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya), On Ratchadapisek Road opposite Soi 38, Lat Phrao MTR station. Chiranuch’s trial is in Courtroom 701 on February 8-10 and 11-17 and probably longer. Tantawut’s trial will continue in Courtroom 906.

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