Thailand girds for landmark case against free expression online

A landmark cyber-crime case in Thailand commenced on 31 May 2010, with the accused, website administrator Chiranuch Premchaiporn, officially denying the 10 counts of Computer Crime Act violation filed against her.

The Criminal Court set the trial's first hearing on 4 February 2011, even as the Court approved the prosecution's 14 witnesses and the defense's 13 witnesses in the pre-trial session.

Chiranuch was arrested at the prachatai.com office by police officers from the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok on 6 March 2009. According to the police, lese majeste statements were posted for 20 days on the website's web board from 15 October to 3 November 2008.

About a month later, on 7 April 2009, nine additional charges were brought against her on the same account, each charge corresponding to nine comments posted on the newspaper's website between April and June 2008.

The charges brought against her were based on Article 14 of the 2007 Computer-Related Offences Commission Act, better known as the Computer Crime Act, as well as Article 91 of the Criminal Code and Article 4 of the 1983 amendment Act (Sixth Issue)  to the Penal Code.

After a year of investigation, Thai public prosecutors on 31 March 2010 filed a criminal lawsuit against Chiranuch.

Test case

Testifying to the significance of Chiranuch's case was the presence at the pre-trial session of representatives from various media and free expression advocate groups like Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), Freedom House (FH) and SEAPA.

The lawsuit against Chiranuch is considered a test case in measuring the limits of free expression online in Thailand.

According to the "Bangkok Post", Chiranuch was later detained at the ground floor of the Criminal Court for about four hours before being released on bail. Bail was set at THB 300,000 (around US$9,200), but the Prachatai executive director was eventually released on personal guarantee posted by her sister, who is a government official.

Independent news platform

The total of 10 charges proceeded despite the fact that all comments were eventually taken down by Prachatai upon the request of Thai police. As Prachatai is one of the most popular independent news, commentary, and discussion online platforms in Thailand, and receives numerous comments daily, Chiranuch maintains that she was not aware of the controversial comments until she was notified. Observers of Prachatai also note that the website was known to be pragmatic and cooperative with officials in the past, especially when it comes to items that could potentially be considered lese majeste (insulting to the monarchy), or in violation of the Computer Crime Act  (which critics contend is but another layer to the same lese majeste laws.)

If convicted, Chiranuch may be meted up to 50 years' imprisonment under the Computer Crime Act.

Harsh penalties

This law was introduced in 2007 under the post-coup government of General Surayudh Chulanont. Observers and critics say that the law was designed to deal with bloggers and websites that spoke against the coup and implicated the role of the monarchy in the political battle between opponents and supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The only law in Thailand that empowers the authorities to block or shut down websites deemed as harmful by the state, the Computer Crime Act, is also controversial for its harsh penalties.

The crimes that this law addresses can be divided into two sets.

The first set deals with conventional crimes committed online, like illegal access to data, spamming, and others. It is the second set that has become controversial, particularly Article 14, because not only does it contain offenses already covered by the Thai Penal Code (under Section 112), it also carries harsh penalties. Under Article 14, offenses against national security like lese majeste are included. Critics claim that Thai authorities always invoke violations of lese majeste via Article 14 in dealing with Internet users and Internet service providers (ISPs).

Lese majeste is simply put defamation against Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej or the royal family. Thai authorities have been charging people accused of online material considered as defamatory to the monarchy with violation of this section.

Whenever the police file charges, they cite Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act. However, critics claim that a court would sentence someone found guilty of committing lese majeste online, applying the penalty under the Section 112 of the Penal Code, which provides for a tougher penalty of 15 years' imprisonment compared to the Computer Crime Act's five years.

In Chiranuch's case, however, she was charged with 10 counts of violating Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act, with each charge carrying a penalty of five years, hence, her total prison time, should she be found guilty, would be 50 years. Had she been charged under the Penal Code, the prison terms she would be facing would be higher.

Article 18 of the Computer Crime Act gives the authorities vast powers to investigate and gather evidence of an offense committed by or via computer. Also, computer data or computer traffic data from any computer system suspected of being used for an offense can be copied, while computer data or computer systems can be accessed to gather evidence. Authorized officials can also decode any person's computer data, and seize or attach any computer system for up to 90 days as part of their investigation and gathering of evidence.

Shutdown

Under Article 20, authorities, with the approval of the Minister of Information and Computer Technology, can ask courts for the blocking or shutting down of websites in question. The government in early 2009 claimed to have blocked some 10,000 websites using this law.

According to a recent report by Thai newspaper "Thairath", some 1,150 websites were closed down in the days immediately following the 19 May 2010 dispersal of the Red Shirt protesters.

Chiranuch's case is the most prominent. Others have also been arrested and charged with violating the Computer Crime Act.

These include the person who posted the statements on prachatai.com. He has been arrested and charged in late 2008 his case is now pending.

Convicted

On the other hand, Suwicha Thakhor, a thirty-something mechanic from Nakhon Phanom in the northeast, was the first person to be convicted under the Computer Crime Act. He was arrested in January 2009 over accusation that he posted materials defamatory to the monarchy on YouTube. Pleading guilty during his trial, he was convicted on 3 April 2009 and was meted out a reduced sentence of 10 years' imprisonment (from an original 20) under the Penal Code.

In October 2009, four persons were charged under Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act for allegedly posting rumors online about the King's health, which the authorities claimed have caused prices in the Thai stock market to plunge. The four were released on bail and no case have yet been filed in court. 

Source: 
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