Her crime was to fail to act quickly enough to remove user comments that were defamatory of the monarchy. At the time that she was charged, Prachatai ran very active discussion boards and provided a unique platform for the kind of political debate that was impossible to have elsewhere. Thousands of users contributed to discussions every day on issues ranging from education to politics.
Chiranuch, Jiew to friends, had faced a sentence of 20 years in prison on 10 counts of “insult” to the monarchy, or lèse majesté and the court showed some leniency in convicting her on only one count and suspending the prison sentence. Judge Kampol Rungrat based his guilty verdict on one particular post that was left on the Prachatai site for 20 days, which he considered too long.
Chiranuch’s case brought together two sets of particularly restrictive laws: the Computer Crimes Act and the lèse majesté law. Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act and associated regulations have been relied upon to shut down or block tens of thousands of websites. In 2010 alone, the authorities themselves reported that 40,000 web pages had been blocked — while activists put the number at at least 110,000. Many of these include political sites.
Thailand’s lèse majesté law has been used to stifle political expression and dozens of people have been convicted to lengthy prison sentences. Only three weeks ago, a 62 year-old man convicted for sending insulting SMS messages to the personal secretary of the prime minister — which he strenuously denied — died in prison while serving a 20-year sentence.
The combination of the two sets of laws in this case was a highly toxic one and in a way, today’s verdict was perhaps the best possible outcome for Chiranuch. The court had very little leeway. She may still appeal and seek to clear her name but to do so would risk a more severe sentence being imposed.
But while today’s outcome was moderately good for Chiranuch (the suspended prison term does mean she will have to tightly control her website for fear of the sentence being activated) it is bad for freedom of expression. The discussion board on which the comments had been posted and which allowed space for political debate that was not permitted elsewhere has already been shut down because of the case. Others will no doubt follow.
The international free speech community had made Chiranuch a poster child for internet freedom. She shared a platform with Hillary Clinton at a Google-sponsored conference in the Hague in 2011 and spent the last two years traveling the world raising awareness of her case as well as the wider issue it stood for. Chiranuch’s lawyers conducted a solid defence and had pointed out that a strict interpretation of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act would put the country out of step with international standards on freedom of expression – and that it would be bad for the development of online commerce in the country. Google and others had made it clear that a guilty verdict would impede the development of their business in Thailand.
The Thai courts convicted her nevertheless. This sent a clear signal: the authorities will not hesitate to press charges no matter how high the defendant’s profile. This can only lead to increased self-censorship and a further tightening of the space for free and open political debate in Thailand.
Peter Noorlander is chief executive of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, which assisted in the defence of the case