A Thai editor's trial is being held amid a vigorous government clampdown on the Internet. Seen here, an Internet cafe in Bangkok. (Reuters/Sukree Sukplang)
A Thai editor's trial is being held amid a vigorous government clampdown on the Internet. Seen here, an Internet cafe in Bangkok. (Reuters/Sukree Sukplang)

Internet freedom on trial in Thailand

Hearings commenced today in the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, executive director of the Thailand-based independent news website Prachatai. She stands accused of 10 different violations of the country’s draconian 2007 Computer Crime Act (CCA), each of which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.  

The case centers on comments posted by users of a Prachatai Web board that authorities have charged were defamatory of the Thai monarchy–a criminal offense under Thai law. Chiranuch has been charged under the CCA’s Section 15, which pertains to the liability of online intermediaries, including Internet service providers (ISPs) and webmasters.

I was in attendance to monitor today’s proceedings, which featured testimony from prosecution witness Aree Jivorarak, head of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology’s (MICT) IT Regulation Bureau. He read aloud a number of the contested posts in court, some of which made only vague references to an unnamed “father,” “mother,” and “son,” and discussed how his censorship team determined the “intent” of such comments.

Aree said in his testimony that when his office brought the comments to Chiranuch’s attention she “immediately” deleted them in her capacity as the Web board’s moderator. Chiranuch told CPJ that Prachatai’s online forums received thousands of comments daily in 2008–when the alleged CCA violations occurred–and that it was impossible to police instantly every comment that was posted.

Chiranuch’s case has put a spotlight on the CCA’s many vague and draconian provisions. Before today’s hearings, in meetings and seminars, freedom of expression advocates here have argued that the CCA’s national security related provisions are ill-defined and by passing liability to intermediaries represents a threat to Internet freedom. (Prachatai suspended all of its online forums in July 2010.)

Under cross-examination at today’s trial, Aree admitted that his MICT did not have institutionalized rules and regulations for determining and investigating comment-based computer crimes and that they were typically agreed to by a special committee of officials from different ministries and agencies, including the National Security Council and the military, appointed by the prime minister.

The case is the first to use the CCA’s Section 15 against a webmaster. People close to Chiranuch’s legal defense point to recent court decisions they believe could work in her favor. On January 31, a Thai court ruled in favor of a woman accused of posting anti-royal messages onto a Prachatai board due to lack of evidence.  A similar CCA Section 15 case against another Thai site, Pantip, was thrown out on December 29.

At the same time, Chiranuch’s trial is being held amid a vigorous government clampdown on the Internet, with a sharp focus on shutting down materials deemed critical of the monarchy. In a December report, Thailand’s iLaw Project said the government ordered 38,868 websites and Web pages blocked in 2010 for publishing anti-royal content. Overall, the government took down 44,000 web addresses, including Prachatai, during 2010, the group said.

Defense witnesses are expected to argue in upcoming hearings that the CCA’s Section 15 is out of step with laws governing intermediary liability in many Western countries and that the Thai law applies unreasonable obligations to webmasters. Even if the court asserts that such comparisons aren’t relevant to Thailand’s particular political, cultural, and legal context, today’s prosecution witness testimony highlighted just how arbitrarily the CCA can be applied.

(Reporting from Bangkok)