In January 2013, the Criminal Court convicted and sentenced a magazine editor to ten years in prison in Thailand. His crime was violation of the lèse majesté law by publishing and disseminating two articles. The court proved the guilt of the editor by asking witnesses to read the articles in question and interpret them for the court. Upon listening to the interpretation of these witnesses, the court concluded that the editor must have reached the same interpretation. Therefore, this indicated that the editor intended to defame the king by printing and disseminating the two articles. The court therefore punished the editor with ten years imprisonment.
In addition to being the editor of Voice of Taksin magazine, which printed the accused articles in question, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk is also a labor activist. He worked in the service of workers’ struggles for several decades. During the political crisis in which the monarchy rose to the fore as an element of the crisis, Somyot called for the abolition of the lèse majesté law. His view was that the law impugned upon freedom of expression and opinion.
A prior Thai law, the Printing Act of B.E. 2484 (1941 C.E.), contained a measure that editors were responsible for defamatory statements in material they printed and disseminated. However, this law was abolished in 2007, by the Printing Act of B.E. 2550 (2007 C.E.). The new law did not stipulate that editors were responsible for material they printed and disseminated. After the promulgation of the new Act, it was widely understood among publishers and journalists that the author was the responsible figure if there was criminally defamatory material published in a newspaper or other printed material. Editors no longer had to take responsibility. After the new law came into force, a case was brought that resulted in a judgment that set a new norm. This was the case in which the editor of Manager Daily newspaper was charged after printing content from a radio program about the abuse of power by M.R. Pridiyathorn Devakula during his term as Governor of the Bank of Thailand. The Court of First Instance ruled on 23 January 2007 that the defendant had violated the law and was fined. Then, the Appeal Court examined the case and offered the logic that, “While this case was being examined, the Printing Act of B.E. 2550 came into force. Article 3 abolished the Printing Act of B.E. 2484. In addition, the Act does not stipulate that the editor is responsible for statements in the newspaper of which he serves as editor. The action of the defendant is therefore no longer a crime.”
Somyot Prueksakasemsuk raised the Printing Act of B.E. 2550 in his defense. He argued that the new Act contained an article that abolished the Printing Act of B.E. 2484 and so he was exempt from being an offender. But the court refused this line of analysis and stated in the decision that, “The defendant asserted that the Printing Act of B.E. 2550 contained an article nullifying the Printing Act of B.E. 2484. The defendant asserted that he was exempt from being an offender according to Article 2 (2) of the Criminal Code, which stipulates that if a measure of law is later promulgated that an action is no longer a crime, then the defendant is exempt from having violated it. This means that the defendant is exempt from being a person who violated the Printing Act of B.E. 2484 only. The charge of the defendant having violated Article 112 of the Criminal Code is not dismissed under this legal reasoning and the defense of the defendant [on this matter] does not stand. The defendant made the argument that he was not the author of the articles that the plaintiff brought forward to prosecute in this case, but the plaintiff accused the defendant of defaming, insulting, and threatening the king through the publication, sale and distribution, and dissemination of Voice of Taksin magazine. The defense of the defendant therefore does not pertain to the action for which he was prosecuted and was therefore not a point in the case for the court to analyse.”
In sum, the statement of the court was that the plaintiff accused the defendant of defaming the king through the publication, sale and distribution, and dissemination of a magazine. Therefore, the citing of the nullification of the Printing Act of B.E. 2484 by the Printing Act of B.E. 2550 was irrelevant as it did not pertain to the action for which he was prosecuted.
Even though, if the Printing Act of B.E. 2484 had not been nullified and was still in force, the crime in this case would have been that of being the editor, publisher, and distributor of a magazine that contained defamatory statements. But the court ruled that this was not the action for which Somyot was prosecuted.
Throughout the hearings and investigation, no other evidence was presented other than that which proved that Somyot was the editor of the aforementioned magazine. In the demonstration of Somyot’s guilt, no other evidence was presented other than the opinions of witnesses after reading the two articles in question.
During the witness hearings to demonstrate criminal intent, the Court asked witnesses to read the articles and provide their opinions on whether or not they were defamatory. The witnesses had different opinions. The first group held the view that both articles were defamatory. The second group held the opinion that one article was defamatory and they could not ascertain whether or not the second article was defamatory. The third group held the view that neither of the articles were defamatory. The fourth group read the articles but did not understand them. They did not know what the articles were about.
This case must go down in history as one in which the court ruled an editor to be guilty of a crime on the basis of the belief that this editor read the articles in question and then could only reach the same conclusion about them as one particular group of witnesses. This ruling was made without any evidence at all and without any law that specifies that an editor must take responsibility for any crimes that arise in the materials that he publishes.
About the author: Wad Rawee is a Thai novelist, social and cultural critic, former editor of Underground Buleteen, and publisher of Shine Publishing House in Thailand.