In a much anticipated ruling that struck a chord of moderation in Thailand’s contentious battle over free speech, a Thai court on Wednesday convicted an Internet webmaster accused of violating the country’s lèse-majesté laws, but suspended her sentence and imposed a small fine. The compromise ruling came as the international media turned its spotlight on Thailand with the arrival of global leaders in Bangkok for a meeting of the World Economic Forum on East Asia.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the webmaster of the Prachatai political website, was prosecuted under Thailand’s harsh lèse-majesté laws for failing to delete fast enough comments posted by readers deemed offensive to the country’s constitutional monarchy. Her case had drawn the attention of Thai advocates of free speech and international human-rights groups, who were concerned the law is being used to stifle freedom of expression. The verdict came less than a month after an international outcry over the death in prison of a 61-year-old retired truck driver convicted and sentenced to 20 years for sending text messages that threatened members of the royal family.
Chiranuch faced a possible 20 years in prison for 10 offensive comments left by readers. In handing down his verdict, judge Kampol Rungrat said that Chiranuch failed to delete one offensive comment for 20 days, and so sentenced her to one-year in prison, reduced to eight months, but suspended the sentence. He fined her 20,000 baht ($625), which she immediately paid with help from dozens of supporters who had flocked to the court in a show of solidarity.
Chiranuch told reporters the verdict was “logical and reasonable,” but said it will still “have an impact on self-censorship.” Sunai Phasuk, the Thailand representative of Human Rights Watch, concurred, saying the judge’s decision set a troubling and unacceptable precedent in that it requires intermediaries, such as Internet service providers and webmasters, to enforce censorship on behalf of the state. “It creates a climate of fear, and damages Thailand’s attempts to position itself as a hub for information and communications technology in the region,’’ he said.
The ruling appears to conform to the ideas of 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in a 2005 address to the nation said the lèse-majesté laws only brought problems for the monarchy and charges against violators should be dropped and those in prison released. However, since that time, and particularly following a 2006 military coup, the number of lèse-majesté cases filed has increased sharply, as have the penalties.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has said her government will not change the law. Her position is regarded by many analysts as an attempt to smooth relations with ultraconservative elements in the military and the establishment who have questioned the loyalty to the monarchy of her political party and of her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister ousted in the coup. Thaksin lives abroad, having fled a conviction and two-year prison sentence for abuse of power.
This week, parliament is also debating a controversial “national reconciliation” bill that would grant amnesty for anyone involved in political offenses from 2005 through ’11. Critics have said the bill is designed to help rehabilitate Thaksin’s image, and its passage is threatening to reignite Thailand’s lightly slumbering political conflict. On Wednesday, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, an ultra-monarchist group opposed to an amnesty for Thaksin, began staging a mass rally in Bangkok. The PAD, known as the Yellow Shirts, and the opposition Democrat Party are against the reconciliation bill, even though it would quash any existing or potential cases against them for controversial actions taken during recent years, including the occupation of Bangkok’s international airport by the Yellow Shirts and a military crackdown against demonstrators in 2010 ordered by the Democrat-led government that resulted in 91 deaths.