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Defending Free Expression Online

Verdict postponed in landmark Thai Internet freedom case

Earlier today, press and human rights groups from around the world heard that the decision in the case of Chiranuch "Jiew" Premchaiporn, the manager of Thai online news site Prachatai, was being delayed yet another month. Chiranuch is charged under Thailand's Computer Crime Act for 10 counts of not deleting apparently anti-monarchy comments on Prachatai's online discussion boards.

There is a reason why this case, more than many other prosecutions related to Thai's lѐse majesté law, is being so closely watched by international human rights groups and Internet companies. Even without a judgment, it is casting a pall over online freedom of expression in Thailand. With a conviction, it could undermine the lawful basis of the Internet there.

The new delay prolongs the uncertainty, not just for Chiranuch, over whose head the threat of imprisonment has been hovering for three years, but for all online media sites in Thailand. The Prachatai case has already exposed many ambiguities in the Thai Computer Crime law, including whether intermediaries like Prachatai are liable for their commenters when they are unaware of the content; what exactly constitutes lѐse majesté within comments; and how long websites can keep such content online before triggering liability.

None of these important elements are detailed in the Computer Crime Act. The ministry responsible for enforcing the act has not provided any guidelines or regulations for compliance with the law, even though it came into force in 2007. No clarification has been made in the three long years of Chiranuch's own prosecution.

Inevitably, prosecution and defense have made differing arguments about the vulnerability of online news sites to such charges. Prosecution witnesses have stated that under the law, intermediaries are liable the moment an offending comment appears. Experts, including CPJ and Wanchat Padungrat, the founder of Thailand's most popular online forum, Pantip.com, testified to the court that perfect monitoring of the country's online users would be impossible.

Pantip runs 24 webboards, with thousands of topics and tens of thousands of comments generated every day. Even though it blocks "dangerous" keywords related to the monarchy, Wanchat stated that he could not police against all potentially illegal statements, which are often couched in elliptical imagery. Yet under the maximalist interpretation of liability argued by the prosecutor in Chiranuch's case, not only Pantip, Prachatai, and the 14 million homepages of Facebook's Thai users, but even ISPs and cellphone service providers would be liable for the unfiltered content passing through their networks.

Faced with the possibility that almost any Internet company could be prosecuted for the acts of its users, Thai's online space for news and commentary has already diminished. Prachatai chose to shutter its own forums completely in 2009, rather than risk more lawsuits against its employees. But fewer forums have not lessened Thai's intense interest in the news of the monarchy -- news that goes largely unreported in Thai's broadcast and print media.

As the pace of censorship and lѐse majesté cases increases in the country, and as the traditional media treads ever more cautiously for fear of triggering its own prosecutions, it is inevitable that rumors and controversial opinions will increasingly spill into the online world. And that means that, unless the law is clarified in favor of free speech, more politicized court cases will be aimed at targets least able to defend themselves.

At the conclusion of the court's hearings in February, the presiding judge reassured both defense and prosecution that he would review the case "based on the rule of law, and place [due] importance on business interest[s]." Today's postponement came as a surprise. Chiranuch, like others, is hopeful that the delay is an indication that the complexity of the case is being taken seriously, and the court and the country is waking up to just how damaging to press freedom and the Thai Internet a wrongful conviction would be.

April 30, 2012 1:53 PM ET |

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The CPJ Internet Channel examines the battle for free expression online.

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