Free speech on trial in Thailand: Trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn is Thailand’s shame

2011.08.24 11:45

By CJ Hinke, Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)

When Thai government ordered a police raid on independent news portal Prachatai and the arrest of citizen journalist and director Chiranuch (Jiew) Premchaiporn on March 6, 2009, it didn’t just shoot itself in the foot. It planted a landmine and then stepped on it, blowing off one of the Thai elephant’s front legs!

Prachatai was founded in 2004 by respected scholar, social activist, freedom of expression advocate and former Thai senator, 2005 Magsaysay Awardee Jon Ungpakorn. From conception to inception to evolution, Prachatai became the singular voice in reporting news no other Thai media would touch and remains so.

All other Thai media, both traditional and online, practice relentless self-censorship even when not directly blocked by government censors and often simply don’t cover any sensitive issues regarding corruption, the military, the monarchy, or the Southern Muslim insurgency for independence.

Prachatai, on the other hand, not only reports those issues but gave readers web forum to discuss them as well as allowing public comments to its news articles.

We were told in court Chiranuch was arrested not for comments she made on Prachatai but for not being sufficiently prompt in removing 10 comments Thai government allege are lèse majesté. Chiranuch was charged on March 31, 2010 using the military coup government’s Computer Crimes Act.

Each count carries a five-year maximum penalty with which Thai courts have proven very heavy-handed. Although Chiranuch was charged with ten counts for a potential 50-year sentence if convicted, as the charges are all under the same law, she faces only 20 years.

When the Democrat Party chose Abhisit Vejjajiva as its prime minister, one of his first meetings with Thai citizen activists was with representatives of Thai Netizen Network, Campaign for Popular Media Reform and Prachatai. The then PM stated that the computer law would never be used to curtail free speech.

The Prime Minister lied.

At a later meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, when asked about the Prachatai case, the PM said he thought the case had been dropped and mentioned Chiranuch’s arrest was the greatest regret of his administration.

Not only was the past PM a liar but one who always seems to have his lies caught out, a bad liar.

The Democrats, of course, ran Thailand for eight months, from April 10 to December 22, 2010, under martial law which means Thai military was really running the show. During this period, Thai military agencies were not only in charge of effecting censorship—Prachatai’s website was blocked for much of this period as was FACT’s—but in deciding which criminal prosecutions to pursue.

Thai military, with the collusion of the Democrat administration, made the choice to try to expand the definition of reckless lèse majesté laws by effecting third-party intermediary liability which resulted in Chiranuch’s arrest and trial.

Thai government has sought to expand citizen liability even further with the arrest of American citizen Joe Gordon merely for allegedly hyperlinking to three translated portions of a book officially banned in Thailand but which has a place on nearly every Thai home bookshelf, Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles.

Prior to Chiranuch’s arrest, ICT ministry officials would call her occasionally to question possibly illegal comments. MICT’s chief censor stated in court Chiranuch was always polite and cooperative and often removed offending material.

This time ministry bureaucrats didn’t call Chiranuch about the ten comments. This is strong evidence they planned her arrest and to shut down Prachatai.

In court in February, we heard that none of the comments to the Prachatai webboard directly referenced the monarchy but used coded phrases which it was alleged anyone would understand. In fact to repeat such coded language is in itself lèse majesté!

Excuse me, but I didn’t find those references obvious at all, at least until they were discussed in open court and the prosecution explained their possible meanings.

Although an optimistic attitude prevailed among a courtroom festival of supporters, one wonders why this trial is taking place at all.

Lèse majesté prosecutions do nothing to protect Thailand’s monarchy. Instead they serve to support the status quo of a wealthy Bangkok elite who serve a Thai military agenda desperate to demonstrate their Royal loyalty to each other.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn’s career is nothing short of dedicated service and commitment as a journalist. Her arrest is Thailand’s shame.

Thailand doesn’t need more martyrs. In fact, we are desperate for nonviolent heroes like Chiranuch.

In February, both the defense and the prosecution intended to call 14 witnesses each. The time allotted, two weeks, was not sufficient so Chiranuch’s trial was postponed until September (1-2, 6-9, and 20-21). The fact is, all charges against Chiranuch are spurious and must be dropped.

Chiranuch’s case was closely followed by international freedom of expression NGOs, many of which sent observers, the US Embassy, the United Nations and even British Parliament.

No one has forgotten Chiranuch. Her case has caused international outrage and the tsunami of public opinion is just getting started. We forfeit any right to call ourselves a democracy if the Crown convicts Chiranuch.

One of the first campaign promises of the Puea Thai Party was the release of all political prisoners. If the new government is honest about this, they must drop all pending charges under the Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté laws. There are now nearly 500 citizens under such legal charges and at least five campaigns against these laws.

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

Chiranuch’s trial resumes September 1 at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya), on Ratchadapisek Road — Lat Phrao MRT station. [Trial Calendar]


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