BANGKOK Oct.2 -- The arrest and legal procedure of the case against Prachatai director Chiranuch Premchiaporn were both unfair and unlawful, said Chiranuch’s attorney.
Chiranuch’s lawyer Anon Nampa, who drove from Saraburi province to accompany her during the interrogation at Khon Kaen provincial police station in Northeastern Thailand, said the charges against her are too severe and constitute unjustifiable use of law.
“The charges are filed at random,” Anon said. “It clearly is political slandering.”
On Friday September 24, 2010 at 4pm, after taking 14-hour flights from Budapest, Hungary, Chiranuch, director of independent online newspaper Prachatai.com, was arrested by immigration police at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international Airport. She was driven for another six hours to Khon Kaen to hear what she was charged for - comments posted on the website under her responsibility. But this time each comment could make her face a jail term of up to 15 years. She faces four charges including lese majeste. She was later released on bail of 200,000 baht (about 6,600 U.S. dollars)
Regarding the former case against Chiranuch which is now on trial, she was charged on March 6, 2009 for violating Section 15 of Computer-Related Crime Act for allowing comments allegedly deemed lese majeste to be posted on Prachatai’s webboard for ‘longer than an appropriate period’, set by police.
Maximum jail term of 50 years
After considering that comments related to the interview of Chotisak Onsoong, who refused to stand for the royal anthem in a theater, on Prachatai, which attracted more than 200 comments within the first week of published, and Sameskyboard.com on April 28, 2008 deemed lese majeste, Sunimit Jirasuk, a Khon Kaen businessman, went to the police station and filed charges against Chiranuch and Samesky webmaster Thanapol Eawsakul for publicizing and persuading others to approve, praise and imitate Chotisak’s ‘disloyal’ act, Manager Online reports1.
Sunimit also lodged a complaint against Chotisak, who already faces another lese majeste charge, the report says. However, Anon said the police denied there exist any charges against Chotisak.
The interview was originally published on Prachatai on April 21, 2008, and was later posted on Samesky webboard. The five comments alledgedly deemed lese majeste on Prachatai were posted during the period between April 21 to 27, 2008.
“That means [Sunimit] lodged complaint the next morning after the comments were posted the night before,” said Arthit Suriyawongkul, committee member of Bangkok-based Internet user network for online liberty “Thai Netizen Network” who accompanied Chiranuch from the airport to Khon Kaen.
“Most of the comments approve Chotisak’s act, indicating that they want to overthrow the monarchy. It is believable that letting people freely express their opinions regarding the issue on the Internet indicates that [the webmasters] want to be the center of the people who want to undermine the throne. Therefore, both webmasters should be charged,” Manager online reported Sunimit’s remark.
The court arrest warrant was issued a year later on September 8, 2009.
According to the warrant of Chiranuch, she was charged for:
1. lese majeste (Section 112 of the Penal Code – possible jail term of up to 15 years per violation)
2. Publicize to the public by word, writings or any other means which is unconstitutional (Section 116 of the Penal Code – possible jail term of up to seven years)
3. Import to a computer system of false computer data in a manner that is likely to damage the country’s security or cause panic to the public (Section 14 of the Computer-Related Crime Act – possible jail term of up to five years)
4. Intentionally support or consent to an offence above (Section 15 of the Computer-Related Crime Act – similar punishment to Section 14)
As, according to the police, there were five problematic comments, making the maximum jail term of 50 years.
Thanapol, the police told Anon, also faces exactly the same charges as Chiranuch.
Sarinee Achavanuntakul, a committee member of TNN, said it is not fair to conclude that the webmasters, who are an intermediary, intentionally support the remark as the role of an intermediary is more like a “tube” for information to flow, not an editor of a newspaper who has selected and edited every piece of information before being published.
“It is not fair to conclude that way. The nature of the Internet is that information flows very fast. It would post a very high cost for the intermediary if they are expected to have to screen everything before being published,” Sarinee said. She further voiced a concern that if this kind of charges continued, it would kill Internet innovation in Thailand as no intermediary would like to create any user-generated content website which could land them heavy legal burden.
“Utterly ludicrous,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist and lese majesty critic reacted. “Letting free-flow of opinion doesn’t mean that the webmasters necessarily agrees with the alleged ‘disloyal’ contents. This society is so neurotic. [Some people] are so paranoid about the security of the monarchy institution, or the lack of it, although the institution is revered by a significant number of Thais. Despite this, they still want to suppress all voices of dissent – this is not healthy or helpful for democracy.
“The arrest is more likely to draw negative attention to the monarchy institution again though it’s unlikely to be the last,” Pravit added. “And given the general silence by the mainstream media over the case, the media have also proven themselves to be a shameless defender of the undemocratic values again.”
Anon said charging Chiranuch with lese majeste and Section 116 of the Penal Code was not fair as she did not collaborate with the posters. Moreover, there are sections in the Computer Crime-Related Act which deal directly with the role of webmasters.
Intermediary is a tube, not collaborator.
According to Anon, the police pressed charges with possible severe sentence against Chiranuch without any investigation to prove that the comments deemed lese majeste nor was there any attempt to find the posters of the problematic comments.
“They only target the webmasters,” Anon said.
Chiranuch said some comments have been deleted while the page was still active.
Sarinee said it is really unfair for the webmasters to be charged before the comments are proven to be insulting the throne or the posters were found guilty of lese majeste by the court.
If the posters are found guilty, then the police may start the legal procedure of proving the intention of the webmasters as to whether they intentionally support those remarks to be posted or not, Sarinee explained.
“As I know, Prachatai always immediately takes down comments which the authority sent notice of any inappropriate comment. This indicates that Prachatai did not intend to break the law,” she said.
Chiranuch confirmed that since the Computer Crime-Related Act was enforced, Prachatai has always cooperated with the authorities whenever asked to delete comments. However, Prachatai had never received any notice from authorities to delete the five problematic comments, she insisted.
This is contrary to the earlier on-going ten charges against Chiranuch despite the fact that Chiranuch had quickly deleted postings deemed defamatory by the authorities. She apparently allowed it to remain ‘for too long’ a period, or so the charges claim.
There is no established regulation on how to receive ‘notice’ from the authorities and ‘take down’ postings under Thai law.
However, the authority do sometimes send letters requesting cooperation from the webmasters, asking for them to delete contents or asking for IP address of some webboard members.
Sarinee said due to the fact that what constitute lese majeste differs from individual to individual, police tend to first arrest anyone accused of lese majeste. Under this condition, there is no safe habour for the intermediary and due to fear of possible prosecution they will likely engage in excessive censorship or even shut down any venue for possible comments so not to have to worry about the situation.
After months of legal cases against her, Chiranuch and her colleagues decided in July to shutdown Prachatai’s webboard for good, leaving only the on-lined newspaper which has been blocked by the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration since April 2010. Prachatai announced that the Abhisit Vejjajiva government was hunting for people making anti-government comments online and since it cannot ensure their safety, it had decided to close the Web board.
"With limited protection and no guarantee of safety for anyone who uses the webboard, the Prachatai team has to come to this conclusion - to close the board", announced Prachatai2.
Prior to the shutdown of Prachatai webboard, Samesky webboard was closed by Thanapol in October 2008. “It’s time for someone else to take the burden,” was Thanapol’s reason.
Chiranuch, who has travelled abroad four times since the court issued the warrant, said she has never seen an arrest warrant or a summon letter before and never had trouble passing through the immigration counter at the airport. This is similar to Thanapol from Sameskybooks.org who is reportedly facing the same charges. Thanapol said he has gone abroad once after the arrest warrants was supposedly made, but never had problem passing through the immigration police counter and had never seen any legal document from Khon Kaen police.
“Chiranuch is a legal address registration, and has traveled abroad several times. The question is why the police didn’t first send her a summon letter and why the police had to charge her when she re-entered Thailand that Friday?” asked Anon.
A reliable anonymous source said the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology and a police department specifically dealing with cyber crime did not acknowledge and did not order the arrest. The source further observed that the arrest followed police reshuffle in August.
The immigration police and the police in Khon Kaen treated Chiranuch very well, said Arthit.
He said on that night of the arrest Khon Kaen police told him and Chiranuch not to worry as she would certainly be granted bail. “[A senior official] told me to take good care of you,” a Khon Kaen police was quoted by Arthit as saying.
Supinya Klangnarong, a media right activist and TNN coordinator, believed that the arrest was aimed at making headlines.
“Normally, when police arrest suspect in cases related to lese majeste, they like to keep it low-profile,” said Supinya. “However, this arrest is so blatant and the day of arrest is so symbolic.”
Chiranuch was arrested after returning from two international conferences on Internet freedom: Internet at Liberty held by Google with cooperation with Central European University in Budapest and the 5th Internet Governance Forum held by the United Nations in Lithuania. On the same day, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, had to respond to foreign media’s accusation of him damaging press freedom after attending UN assembly in New York. A year ago, back in March 14, 2009, the PM spoke at Oxford University3 saying the 2009 case of Chiranuch is misunderstanding and was mistaken by police.
“I even spoke on the phone personally to the person who recently arrested which I think it's been a misunderstanding and not following the standard operative procedure that I have actually worked hard with the police,” said the Oxonian prime minister.
Back in New York on September 24, 2010, the very same day Chiranuch faced more new charges, Abhisit seemed to have put out a different vision on freedom of expression.
“I'm not sure whether you'd allow any special station for Al-Qaeda here," was Abhisit’s answer4 quoted by AFP as to why opposition media are being suppressed in Thailand.
Asked if Chiranuch ever had any thought of keeping herself low-profiled and not engage in risky activities, she replied in quivered voice: “I did thought about it. But if I stopped now and not speak out or stop fighting it will continue to become a problem for Thai society.”