30 May 2012

Online editor's verdict a threat to Internet freedom, say IFEX members

Thai online editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn leaves a Bangkok court on 30 May after being handed a suspended jail term for failing to remove a comment critical of the monarchy on her website
Thai online editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn leaves a Bangkok court on 30 May after being handed a suspended jail term for failing to remove a comment critical of the monarchy on her website
A Thai online editor was handed a suspended jail term today for failing to remove a comment critical of the monarchy on her website, prompting the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), other IFEX members and even Google to condemn the move as an assault on Internet freedom.

According to SEAPA and news reports, Chiranuch Premchaiporn was found guilty of failing to promptly delete a post written by others and deemed insulting to the royal family from her popular news website, Prachatai.

Judge Kampol Rungrat fined Chiranuch 20,000 Baht (US$630) and sentenced her to eight months in prison, but suspended the jail term for a year, saying that she had cooperated with the court and had never committed a crime herself.

While SEAPA expressed relief that Chiranuch avoided jail time for now, it said the verdict "sends a chilling message to service providers that they should not only monitor content of their sites but take full responsibility over their arbitrary judgments on what kinds of contents are 'safe' for public consumption."

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the judgment would leave "Thai news sites vulnerable to unjustified and politically motivated prosecutions."

In a rare intervention, Google told AFP that Chiranuch's sentence "is a serious threat to the future of the Internet in Thailand."

"Telephone companies are not penalised for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites," said Google.

Chiranuch was charged over 10 comments posted on the popular Prachatai news site in 2008 that were deemed insulting to the monarchy. The court said she had removed nine of those posts quickly enough, but found the 20 days she had taken to remove one post could be regarded as being in breach of the Computer Crimes Act, which holds Internet service and content providers criminally liable for content they host.

According to SEAPA, Chiranuch told trial observers that the verdict "was not good enough," saying that she expected an acquittal.

Speaking after the verdict, she told reporters, "I will consult with my lawyer to see whether or not I should appeal to confirm my innocence," she said, adding that she will "think hard" about re-opening the website's forum, which was closed following the charges.

IFEX members say that the verdict is unlikely to lead to a loosening of Thailand's lèse majesté laws, which are often used to silence dissent.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 5,000 web pages with alleged lèse majesté content have been shut down in the past six months, despite Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra promise to respect human rights when he took office last August.

Human Rights Watch said that finding Chiranuch guilty sends a warning about what can be said about the monarchy online. "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."

Criticism of the law has intensified since the death of a 62-year-old Thai man this month while serving a 20-year sentence for sending text messages that offended the royal family, reports Freedom House. The man had claimed not to even know how to use text messaging.

According to news reports, yesterday, a petition signed by almost 27,000 people urging reform to lèse majesté laws was submitted to parliament in the first mass action of its kind.

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