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Thai webmaster walks after insulting royals

Suspended sentence sees activists warn of ominous future

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If you plan to unleash the snark online over Jubilee weekend, spare a thought for a Thai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who has just been sentenced to eight months porridge - thankfully suspended - for online statement deemed harmful to Thailand's monarchy.

Campaigners against growing internet censorship in Thailand aren't happy that Premchaiporn, known as ‘Jiew’, had a one-year and 30,000 baht (£607) fine reduced to a 20,000 baht (£405) penalty without incarceration. Co-operation with the court saw the sentence reduced.

Jiew was arrested in 2008 for several comments made on independent news site Prachatai which broke the country’s 2007 Computer Crime Act.

This law penalises any “false computer data” which is deemed likely to cause damage to a third party or national security – the latter including defaming the monarchy.

Chiranuch was charged under Article 15, which rules that “anyone supporting or consenting” to the above will be subject to the same penalties.

Given that she was facing a potential 20 year stretch in the clink, Jiew appeared relieved with the verdict.

"I expected to be acquitted, but I found the judge's verdict logical and reasonable," she said, according to AP.

"However, I still think the verdict will have an impact on self-censorship."

Bangkok Criminal Court judge Kampol Rungrat apparently doled out the sentence based on one particular comment that was left on the site for 20 days, despite recognising the importance of freedom of expression.

Human rights campaigners slammed the verdict, arguing it could set an unnerving precedent for other webmasters and encourage self-censorship.

“Jiew’s sentence is an alarming bellwether that the Thai government does not value free opinion and expression of its citizens,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director at Freedom House.

“Both the CCA and the Criminal Code fail to conform to universal rights standards, such as those mandated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand signed onto in 1996. In order to meet its international human rights obligations, Thailand must decriminalise defamation online and offline.”

The part of the Criminal Code activists are most perturbed about is Article 112, which criminalises anyone found guilty of lèse majesté, or defaming the monarchy. Critics argue that while it offers room for interpretation, this law is deliberately being used to suppress freedom of speech.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, had a similarly pessimistic outlook on the future of web freedom in Thailand.

“More and more web moderators and internet service providers will censor discussions about the monarchy out of fear they too may be prosecuted for other people’s comments,” he said in a prepared statement.

“A criminal conviction for an internet intermediary in a lèse majesté case marks a new low in Thailand’s intolerance of free speech.”

Google also had a pop at the ruling and criticised the continuing lack of transparency for web intermediaries. The firm's head of public policy for Asia Pacific, Ross LaJeunesse, said the following in a blog post:

Telephone companies are not penalised for things people say on the phone and responsible web site owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites. Unfortunately, Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act is being used in this case to do just that.

The Computer Crimes Act stifles innovation and deters investment in a country and a people full of potential. We understand this is not simple. It is complicated and it is often not black and white. But if there were transparent rules about how to identify and react to unlawful content, Thailand will have a more free and open internet and in doing so, allow millions of Thais, from small business owners to students to civil servants, to connect with the world and grow the Thai economy.

Ironically the verdict was handed out on the same day that Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi landed in Thailand for her first trip out of her home country in nearly a quarter of a century.

Given the way things are going in both countries, Thailand is in danger of swapping places with the notoriously repressive state after Reporters Without Borders recently put Thailand on its "countries under surveillance" list. ®

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