Woman in waiting
While Prachatai.com director Chiranuch Premchaiporn is fearful at the thought of spending the rest of her life in jail, she is determined not to let it grind her down
Recently listed by the US-based Newsweek Magazine as amongst the world's 150 Fearless Women, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of non-profit online newspaper Prachatai.com faces a long prison sentence for not deleting a few defamatory remarks made by others against the monarchy quickly enough from the Prachatai web board.
Charged under the Computer Crimes Act, the verdict in her trial is expected at the end of next month.
Asked if she is really fearless, Chiranuch, 44, grimaces. "No. I am still so fearful," she says without hesitation. "The important thing however is how well we understand fear," she continues, adding that she won't allow fear to dictate her life.
While Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was the only other Thai included on the Newsweek list, news about Chiranuch's trial has not been widely reported in the kingdom.
Chiranuch says this is probably because the Thai mainstream mass media are "paranoid" about reporting anything that has to do with lese majeste. She explains that her trial is also about the intermediary liability for Internet content posted by others. "I don't think Thai media see this dimension of the trial," she says, adding that Westerners recognise it as a threat to freedom on the Internet.
Left-leaning Prachatai has long been known for its critical stance against the mainstream mass media and Chiranuch is not shy about expressing her dismay at how the local media have behaved over the past six years of deep political rift. She says the media have let the public down by not trying to protect their rights to information.
"There's a crisis of faith in the mainstream mass media," she says, sitting at her office desk at Prachatai. "Such deeply partisan political media like ASTV satellite television make no pretence at being impartial so in that sense people know where they are. But many media cross the line and distort information. It's like propaganda."
On the other hand, while some media dwell on the need to reconcile and avoid further political confrontation, Chiranuch sees something positive in the current conflicts. "While there is undoubtedly political hatred in today's society, there's also some truth in what people in saying and I think we are speaking the truth much more often."
She also criticises the mainstream mass media for not trying to explain the ongoing feud over the moves to reform the lese majeste law, pointing out that there has been no competent analysis on the issue, especially in the Thai-language media.
"The two men who punched Worachet in the face don't even know what the problems are with the lese majeste law," she claims, referring to the recent physical attack on Worachet Pakeerut, leader of the Nitirat group of Thammasat law lecturers, which is spearheading an amendment to the law.
But Prachatai is not without its critics. Some believe that because the online newspaper is dependent on US funding, it is a tool of US Imperialism, which aims to undermine the institution of the monarchy and open up the economy and resources to big US corporations.
While discounting the allegation as "an outrageous theory", Chiranuch admits that some 40 to 50 per cent of the funding came from the United States last year. She insists however that these funding sources attach no strings to online content and that Prachathai's dozen staff find local contributors more problematic as they tend to interfere with the agenda.
Chiranuch, who comes from a humble Thai-Chinese background, is also a member of the public campaign committee to amend the lese majeste law. As she awaits her own verdict, she admits to being troubled about the denial of bail to many of those already charged under the law.
"I feel that I have to do something about it. And do it in a straightforward way. It's time society set out to solve the issue."
The trial she is facing has taught her that human rights are not some lofty concept but something tangible. "It lives with me," she said, referring to what her brief arrest and trial has taught her about the lack of freedom of speech.
In just a month's time, she will know her fate. Her case is better known abroad than in Thailand due to foreign media's keen interests on the issue and a string of awards she's received. Chiranuch candidly admits that being put on trial and waiting for the verdict is like having a dark cloud hanging over her head.
"I just try not to allow that cloud influence everything in my life," she says.
It's hard to deny however that that cloud has given her more clout and she readily admits that the new-found publicity has enabled her to meet more people both in Thailand and abroad.