Webmaster sentenced in Thailand free speech case

2012-05-30 16:20
Bangkok - A Thai court sentenced a local webmaster on Wednesday to an eight-month suspended sentence for failing to act quickly enough to remove internet posts deemed insulting to the country's royalty in a case widely seen as a test of freedom of expression in this Southeast Asian nation.

The ruling showed leniency toward Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who faced up to 20 years in prison for 10 comments posted on her Prachatai news website, but it still sends the message that internet content in Thailand must be self-censored.

Chiranuch was the first to be prosecuted under Thailand's computer-crime laws, which were enacted in 2007 under an interim, unelected government that came to power after a coup a year earlier.

The laws address hacking and other online offenses, but also bar the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security, which includes defaming the monarchy.

Her case, which drew international attention, was inextricably linked to Thailand's fractious politics of recent years, as the country's traditional ruling class - allying big business, the military and royalists - has been desperately fighting to retain reverence for the monarchy and their influence over politics.

Freedom of speech

Most people still respect 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but the evident involvement of palace circles in supporting the 2006 military coup against elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra opened the royal institution to unprecedented criticism, much of which was circulated on the internet.

Judge Kampol Rungrat said on Wednesday that his guilty verdict was based on one particular post that was left on the Prachatai site for 20 days, which was deemed too long.

Chiranuch "did not perform her duty in a timely manner" and "allowed the inappropriate posting to be on the website for too long", the judge said.

Chiranuch was initially given a one-year suspended sentence that was immediately reduced to eight months. She also was fined 20 000 baht ($625), which she quickly paid with help from supporters and colleagues who handed her cash.

"I expected to be acquitted, but I found the judge's verdict logical and reasonable," a smiling Chiranuch told reporters. "However, I still think the verdict will have an impact on self-censorship."

Prachatai was founded by several respected journalists, senators and press freedom activists to serve as an independent, non-profit, daily internet newspaper. It has attracted an audience of critics of the status quo, especially on the now-defunct web board where the comments at issue in the court case were posted between April and November 2008.

Thailand's freedom of speech reputation has taken a battering in recent years, with its standing in the Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders sliding to 137th out of 179 last year from 65th in 2002, when the ratings were initiated.
- SAPA
Read more on:    thailand  |  internet  |  human rights
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