Chiranuch has been handed a suspended jail sentence after being found guilty of insulting the monarchy. (Reuters/Kerek Wongsa)
Chiranuch has been handed a suspended jail sentence after being found guilty of insulting the monarchy. (Reuters/Kerek Wongsa)

Conviction in Thailand undermines Internet freedom

Bangkok, May 30, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns today’s conviction of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster and director of the Prachatai news and commentary website, for violating Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act.

A Bangkok criminal court handed Chiranuch an eight-month suspended prison sentence and 20,000 baht (US$630) fine for user comments posted on Prachatai‘s Web board between April and November 2008 that were deemed critical of the Thai royal family, news reports said. The Computer Crimes Act states that any service provider “intentionally supporting or consenting” to transmission of unlawful content within a computer system under their control is subject to the same penalty as the original creator.

Chiranuch had faced up to 20 years in prison, two years for each of the 10 comments, but was convicted for a single comment, which was left on the Prachatai board for 20 days. The court reduced her sentence because she had cooperated with authorities by deleting nine of the comments upon request.

“While we are relieved that Chiranuch Premchaiporn was not imprisoned, her conviction is disastrous for Internet freedom in Thailand,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Today’s precedent is completely out of step with international norms on third-party liability for the Internet and will inevitably lead to more self-censorship among Thai media organizations and individual Internet users.”

CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator Danny O’Brien, among other experts, argued in court that temporarily hosting content could not be seen as active support or consent for unlawful material. If the Thai courts accepted such a wide-ranging interpretation of strict liability, O’Brien noted, online news publishers could be targeted by malicious posters. The court conceded that such liability was unfair, but passed down a guilty verdict for one of the comments, with the judge stating that Chiranuch should have exercised more “common sense” in allowing anti-monarchy material to remain posted for 20 consecutive days. No time limit is specified in the law, and it is unclear whether such precedent will apply to future cases.

The judgment failed to elaborate on how the objectionable comment was a violation of the country’s lèse majesté laws or represented a threat to national security. Lèse majesté charges in Thailand carry up to 15-year jail terms and have been abused for political purposes during the country’s protracted political conflict. The maximum penalty for a comment deemed objectionable under the Computer Crimes Act is five years’ imprisonment.

Chiranuch told reporters outside the court that the verdict and penalty were “bearable,” but it would likely lead to more self-censorship on the Internet. Prachatai closed down all of its Web boards after the Computer Crimes Act-related charges were first filed against Chiranuch in 2009. Chiranuch said today she had not yet decided whether to appeal the decision or reopen her site’s closed Web boards.

The verdict marks a major setback for freedom of expression over Thailand’s Internet and sets a repressive new precedent by making third parties liable for content posted by users of their online platforms, even if the third parties did not intentionally support or consent to the posting. O’Brien noted that this would inevitably lead to more self-censorship among media organizations, Internet users, and service providers.

Charges under both vague and arbitrary laws have surged during Thailand’s six-year-old political conflict, pitting supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra against a royal conservative establishment. Civil society movements calling for the reform of both lèse majesté laws and the Computer Crimes Act have gained momentum in recent months, according to CPJ research.