Day Nine: Free speech on trial in Thailand

The final prosecution witness, senior police lèse majesté investigator, Lt.-General Boonlert Kullayanimit of the Royal Thai Police Crime Suppression Division, proceeded to elaborate the police chain of evidence against Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of independent online news source, Prachatai. The last witness made some remarkable disclosures in his testimony.

The court learned from the police general that the investigation for lèse majesté against Prachatai was initiated by a singular Royal personage. On October 24, 2008, M.L. Panadda Disakul visited the Royal Thai Police to make a complaint against Prachatai for comments which insulted Thailand’s monarchy.

Pol. Lt.-Gen. Boonlert claimed to be unaware of which comment to Prachatai was the subject of Mom Panadda’s accusation.

For those readers unfamiliar with Thai royalty, the Royal title Mom Luang, abbreviated M.L., is given to the grandchildren of Thai kings.

Mom Panadda is the great-grandson of Prince Damrong Rachanupab (1962-1943), son of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and younger half-brother to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). The prince is known as “The Father of Thai History”.

He modernised the Thai civil service, created the education system still in use today, founded the National Library, the National Museum, and the Royal Institute.

Prince Damrong went into self-exile in Penang, Malaya following the failure of the Royal rebellion after the 1932 coup d’etat which ended absolute monarchy. He was not permitted to return to Thailand until 1942 during World War II’s Japanese occupation.

M.L. Panadda is the governor of Chiang Mai province and is presently curator of Varadis Palace, his great-grandfather’s Royal residence, and the Damrong Library.

This disclosure from a prosecution witness is perhaps the most important feature of Chiranuch’s trial so far. Without the interference of a Royal Mom, Prachatai would have continued to be an open forum for public, anonymous discussion to issues vital to the future of our society.

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Further examination by the public prosecutor led to yet another fascinating disclosure. At least one of the comments from the Prachatai webboard posted by the pseudonymous ‘Bento’ alleged by the Crown to be lèse majesté was in fact copied verbatim from the popular Thai web forum Hi5 and attributed to the pseudonym ‘buffaloboy’.

Unlike Prachatai, the Hi5 forum was never targeted nor its website blocked by Thai government. Although “Buffaloboy”’s IP address was identified to police by the ISP Jasmine Internet, this “Buffaloboy” was never prosecuted. “Bento” was the only poster to Prachatai to be charged with lèse majesté and she was acquitted at trial.

We have heard earlier in this trial that ‘Bento’ posted at least one of the ten comments with which Chiranuch is charged but she failed to be convicted of lèse majesté for it.

Pol. Lt.-Gen. Boonlert told the court that Aree Jivorarak, chief censor at Thailand’s ICT ministry, formally requested police investigate “hundreds of URLs” for lèse majesté. Aree provided police the remaining nine comments which the police working group on this issue reached consensus were criminally liable under Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code and Articles 14 and 15 of the Computer Crimes Act.

There was a singular heated exchange between prosecution and defence lawyers. The defence accused the public prosecutor of asking leading questions of the witness. Judge Kampol dismissed this accusation as questioning resumed.

On defence cross-examination, the senior police general admitted that of the hundreds of URLs MICT wanted police to investigate, only Prachatai was located in Thailand; all others were hosted overseas.

General Boonlert stated police relied on printed transcriptions of the Web postings rather than using the original digital files. Police never compared these transcriptions with the digital originals for accuracy.

The witness disclosed that Chiranuch had fully cooperated with the police investigation by making a statement regarding the allegedly illegal comments but she was never informed such statement could also be used to prosecute her.

All offending postings were deleted by the webmaster immediately following police request. However, General Boonlert commenting that the police working group concluded that their appearance on Prachatai at all, no matter how briefly, was lèse majesté.

The final word from this witness occurs in an interview after the court had recessed. Police General Boonlert stated that, if Prachatai is to be charged again in future, cooperation from abroad would be required, as Prachatai’s server has relocated overseas.

To elaborate this point: anyone with a grudge for either a perfectly innocent blogger, or webmaster of a forum or webboard could get that person into trouble by maliciously posting ‘inappropriate’ content. The only way a blogger or webboard-master could get round this would be by disabling all comments, and were does that leave free speech? Web discussion fora are different because they consist solely of comments.

It means in effect, for example, that the owner of a forum about gardening tips could end up on a LM charge because someone posted an offensive comment, either deliberately or accidentally.

We know that the Prachatai forum had a complaint button for offensive content. Did Mom Pannada use this facility when offended or did he run straight to the police? The only cause for complaint against the webmaster would be if the comment had been flagged as offensive and there was an unreasonable delay in removing it.

If a comment is not so flagged, how is it supposed to reach a webmaster’s attention? Even webmasters have to sleep and sometimes take vacations!

If Police General BoonIert’s attitude can be used as a barometer of the prevailing sentiment in Thai government, I guess this will be a long war before the forces of reason and free speech prevail.

Chiranuch’s trial resumes Tuesday, September 20 at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya) on Ratchadapisek Road near Lat Phrao MTR station, Exit 4. The trial is being heard in courtroom 910 but the case docket number is 1167/2553 in case the courtroom venue changes.

The first defence witnesses will be examined on that date (Jon Ungpakorn, Prachatai’s founder, in the morning and Dr. Niran Pithakwatchara, Prachatai board member and a human rights commissioner for Thailand, in the afternoon at least as presently scheduled). Chiranuch’s self-defence testimony may conclude her trial on Wednesday, September 21.

It is now unclear whether the original trial schedule of October 11, 12, 13, and 14 will be used.

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