Day Eleven – Free speech on trial on Thailand

“Prachatai exists to promote human rights”

The judge presiding over the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of Thailand’s independent online news portal, Prachatai, arrived late to court today [21 Sept]. This gave regular observers, local and international activists, NGOs, media representatives and diplomatic staff great pause for concern.

The woman judge who took the bench this morning had not said a word in Chiranuch’s trial, leaving the irrepressible Judge Kampol firmly in charge. Today’s testimony was some of the trial’s most crucial, as Chiranuch Premchaiporn, facing 20 years for ‘computer crimes’, spoke in her own defence.

Chiranuch’s trial started with a panel of three lawyers in February, occasionally joined by three others who drifted in and out. Two more during this phase brings to eight the number of judges hearing just portions of the evidence rather than a coherent whole.

In the absence of trial transcripts of witness testimony in response to questions from prosecution and defence, any citizen might wonder how a court would arrive at a fair and reasonable verdict. As there is a 98% conviction rate for lèse majesté crimes, perhaps they don’t expect to!

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, 44, graduated in journalism from the Faculty of Mass Communications at Thailand’s prestigious Thammasat University. After graduation, she became an advocate for people with HIV/AIDS with the Thai NGO, AIDS Access.

She joined Prachatai as its director in 2006 at the invitation of founder Jon Ungpakorn. At Prachatai, Chiranuch worked on website content development, administration, human resources and fundraising while liaising with government agencies and NGOs. She also coordinated citizen journalism workshops to provide media skills to the disenfranchised. “Prachatai exists to promote human rights,” Chiranuch said.

An editorial group was responsible for legal news content but Chiranuch monitored Prachatai’s public webboard. User posts would appear online in real time, giving immediacy to free and frank discussions.

Users made announcements, started conversation topics and exchanged ideas and opinions. There were no restrictions on differing opinions: human rights and human integrity were not undermined by censorship.

Under this open policy, those with strong opinions listened and compromised and conflicts were avoided using this approach.

Following the military coup d’etat in 2006 saw a tenfold increase in Prachatai’s webboard users. Comments began to degenerate into much conflict over Thailand’s political situation using far more aggressive language to express opinions.

Prachatai was forced to employ stricter measures to moderate the online forum. Netizen users were required to provide personal data and a valid email address was confirmed by Prachatai. Possibly illegal, inappropriate and offensive comments were deleted quickly by Prachatai staff and a host of volunteers composed of professionals from many different fields.

20 − 30 thousand comments were posted daily, generated by 300 new topics every day which, in turn, led to 2,800 − 2,900 replies.

Judge Kampol arrived in court during this comment and interrupted Chiranuch’s testimony to ask if she had acknowledged yet that the ten offending messages with which she is charged appeared on Prachatai. This fact has been dogged to death in court already and is without question but perhaps the learned judge felt he needed to hear it from the defendant.

Chiranuch replied that she was shown police documents which indicated the comments were posted to Prachatai but she personally had never even seen the comments before being charged with them.

Prachatai’s webmaster explained that each message to the webboard is numbered chronologically as it is posted. Unless the entire topic is deleted, comments remain unless deleted manually by Prachatai staff.

By this time, post-coup, Prachatai had received 1,119,000 comments to its webboard. Only 3% of this enormous total needed to be deleted for inappropriate content.

Chief censor, Aree Jivorarak, at Thailand’s ICT ministry arranged a meeting for ISPs and webmasters which was attended by Chiranuch. MICT asked their cooperation in removing content offensive to the monarchy, mailing all groups every day to ask for takedowns.

In the first three month period, MICT requested takedowns for 3,000 URLs. Only 25 were hosted by Prachatai, including the comments which are the subject of this trial. Many had already been deleted and Chiranuch immediately deleted the rest. Some were so dated even the 90-day log files had expired.

Chiranuch was summoned by the police to testify about these posts but was only shown the Prachatai URLs not the message content. On checking by IP address, she found these posts commented on the monarchy.

Chiranuch testified on a single message in the trial of webboard user ‘Bento’ which she had deleted from Prachatai. However, the chief government sensor testified the comment had been deleted by the ISP. ‘Bento’—Noppawan Tangudomsuk—was acquitted but Chiranuch was not told she was about to be arrested on the same ‘evidence’.

Meanwhile, the ISPs and webmasters asked the ministry and police to provide legal guidelines for which text constituted lèse majesté. Such guidelines have still not been provided by the Thai government.

Although Prachatai tightened procedures for monitoring and removal of offensive content, it was still possible for some to go unnoticed due to the sheer volume of postings every day. It would be interesting to know how many of these ‘dangerous’ posts were actually read by Prachatai users as none complained.

The Prachatai webboard was shut down in July 2010 due to the pressure of government censorship. Readers will remember that Prachatai was among the first websites to be blocked by the military when the rule of law was suspended using emergency powers from April 10 to December 22, 2010. Prachatai decided to fight and creating multiple roving URLs to continue to publish news no other Thai media would touch.

On cross-examination by the public prosecutor, Chiranuch stated that each of the ten messages remained on the Prachatai webboard for as little as a day or up to 20 days in one case.

Did the webmaster only remove postings at MICT’s request? She answered that, in most cases, the content had been removed well before MICT acted.

Chiranuch testified she bases her definition of lèse majesté not only on her own opinion but relies on the opinions of at least three other staff to safeguard her website.

Chiranuch’s trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday, October 11, 12, 13, and 14. These court days will include further defence witnesses including overseas experts. The trial will continue at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya) on Ratchadapisek Road near Lat Phrao MTR station, Exit 4. It is likely the courtroom venue will be changed so ask for docket number 1167/2553 when you arrive in October.

Source: 
<p>http://facthai.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/day-eleven-free-speech-on-trial-on-thailand/</p>