BANGKOK, Jun 5, 2012 (IPS) - When Thai police raided the headquarters of the popular alternative news portal ‘Prachatai’ and arrested its executive director, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, back in 2009, the 46-year-old media worker was completely in the dark about her crime.
Premchaiporn claims she had never heard the expression "intermediary liability" before that fateful day.
"I had difficulty pronouncing and spelling this term correctly," she recalled to IPS in a noisy canteen. "It was not easy to explain to people what it meant and I could not find the proper translation in Thai to explain its actual implications."
Now she has had a harsh lesson in one of the more insidious aspects of censorship laws in the country. Intermediary liability falls under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act (CCA), approved by a parliament selected after the military coup in 2006, which threatens jail terms for those who allow the distribution of "prohibited" information in cyberspace.
A landmark verdict by the criminal court on May 30 found Premchaiporn guilty of neglecting her role as an "intermediary" by failing to monitor the comments on Prachatai’s online message board.
Her oversight resulted in a violation of the notorious lese majeste law, which threatens long jail terms for the publication of comments or actions deemed insulting to the royal family.
In justifying the verdict of a one-year suspended prison term for the media worker, presiding judge Kampol Rungrat brought into sharp focus the new responsibilities managers of websites, blogs and Facebook pages will now have to bear – to immediately censor "prohibited" comments posted on message boards.
As a webmaster, Premchaiporn was expected to bear the "liability of an intermediary," the judge pointed out, adding that the she should have reviewed all messages on the website and removed any comments that were "prohibited by the CCA."
It did not matter that the offending message had appeared at a time when Prachatai, then only five years since its launch and operating with a skeleton staff, was attracting between 20,000 to 30,000 users to a message board registering 2,800 comments daily, covering about 300 topics.
Since the country’s 18th coup in 2006, and the military’s ongoing domination of politics, scores of netizens were drawn to the website’s critical coverage of politics and forum for intense debates.
"This case was a test of how the criminal courts will interpret the CCA," Teerapan Pankeere, Premchaiporn’s lawyer, told IPS. "This verdict should put all Internet service providers on (guard): they will have to seriously control and check messages posted on their website."
The ruling comes at a time when Thailand is witnessing a rise in Internet traffic, with over 18 million of the country’s 66 million people online. The registered 14.2 million Facebook users partially explain why 27 percent of this Southeast Asian nation’s citizens are spending long hours surfing the net.
Thailand’s online business sector is also growing, with the global multinational Google helping 80,000 small and medium Thai companies "come on line to help improve their business" in the past year alone.
Many experts and press freedom advocates are growing increasingly concerned about the "chilling effect" draconian censorship laws are having on Thailand’s vibrant Internet community. Particularly worrying is a new wave of self-censorship that will likely gather speed as fear seeps into online fora.
"The guilty verdict for Chiranuch Premchaiporn, for something somebody else wrote on her website, is a serious threat to the future of the Internet in Thailand," remarked Taj Meadows, spokesman for Google’s Asia-Pacific division.
"Telephone companies are not penalised for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites – but Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act is being used to do just that," Meadows told IPS from his Tokyo office. "The precedent set is bad for Thai businesses, users and the innovative potential of Thailand’s Internet economy."
The case has already created a "chill" on the message boards of many websites, and this self-censorship is going to worsen, warned Gayathry Venkiteswaran, head of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a Bangkok-based regional media rights watchdog. "Thai websites that hosted web boards and forums have begun to take them down."
Premchaiporn’s case came as yet another blow to the country's netizens, who, aside from struggling under the military's severe press regulations since the 2006 coup, have had to contend with efforts by a military-backed government to black out websites as part of a clamp-down on freedom of expression during bloody street protests in Bangkok in 2010.
Netizens have also had to endure the ministry of information and communication technology seeking court orders to shut down websites that supposedly violated the CCA.
According to Freedom Against Censorship, Thailand, a Bangkok-based media rights lobby, government officials have blocked close to 878,196 web pages since the 2006 coup, among them 90,000 Facebook pages.
The new burden on Internet intermediaries here places Thailand in the same league as other Asian countries such as Malaysia and India, which have passed laws that demand close scrutiny of online dialogue in response to the growing power of independent media. Some Asian governments such as China, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam have been even harsher, authorising direct and often violent interventions against press freedom.
In Europe, by contrast, intermediaries are not held responsible for content posted on websites of which they are not the authors – an argument used by an international witness who appeared in the trial to bolster Premchaiporn’s defence.
One explanation for this difference is that Internet intermediaries here are mistakenly viewed as newspaper editors, who are subject to national press laws. "Thailand’s CCA is being used very much like the country’s press laws that hold editors liable for the content of their publications," remarked Pirongrong Ramasoota, head of the journalism department at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, at a seminar on Internet freedom.
"You cannot treat intermediaries and web service providers as if they were newspaper editors," she argued. "Till this difference is recognised, laws like the CCA will be used as roadblocks to slow down Internet traffic."