Prachatai sues ICT Ministry for shutdown website during 2010 red-shirt crackdown

For six years, Prachatai has been pursuing a case against the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) for blocking access to its website during the 2010 political violence; the witness hearings have only just ended. The Prachatai Director says the lawsuit is being brought to establish whether the Emergency Decree gives the power to silence media. The verdict will be released on 11 July.
 
On Wednesday, 1 June 2016 the Bangkok Civil Court held a plaintiff’s witness hearing in Case No. 1455/2016, where Prachatai has sued MICT for claiming authority under Article 9 of Emergency Decree to shut down its website on 7 April 2010. If found guilty, the Ministry will have to pay Prachatai 350,000 baht as compensation.
 
Article 9 of the Emergency Decree prohibits the dissemination of distorted information which may affect national security.
 
Before the hearing started, the judge told Prachatai that the money that it may get from winning the lawsuit comes from people’s taxes. Plus, all the people involved in the lawsuit have already left their political positions and the plaintiff's website is no longer blocked. The judge, therefore, asked the plaintiff whether it contradicts the principles of Prachatai, a non-profit organization, to sue for money. 
 
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, Prachatai Director and witness for the plaintiff, replied that the lawsuit is neither for the money nor to attack any particular person but on the principle. Chiranuch said that the lawsuit is to establish a ruling on whether the Emergency Decree gives the authority to shut down media, adding that if Prachatai wins the case, the compensation will be used in the public interest.
 
According to the case file, MICT blocked the entire Prachatai.com website in 2010 because of three news stories.
 
Firstly, the article ‘The real face of Abhisit’ stated that Abhisit Vejjajiva, the then PM, favoured the aristocracy and his government was appointed with the involvement of the military. An MICT officer said that the article deviates from the facts since the Abhisit government was appointed by a majority vote of the House of Representatives.
 
Secondly, a news report about the Love Chiang Mai Group, a red-shirt group in Northern Thailand, had the image of a banner demanding that the parliament of the time be dissolved and also speeches of the red-shirt leaders, saying that they were ready to seize the Provincial Hall to put pressure on the Abhisit government if the leaders in Bangkok wanted them to do so. MICT claimed that the message was intimidation of Abhisit, not freedom of expression which is protected under the Constitution.
 
Thirdly, a photo of a red-shirt protest showed a banner reading ‘Uproot Aristocratic Government.’ MICT claimed that this image deviates from the facts since the Abhisit government was not aristocratic and the red-shirt protest aimed to uproot only the Abhisit government; therefore, the protest is not considered a peaceful protest, which is protected under the constitution.
 
Apart from Chiranuch, the plaintiff’s witnesses were Chuwat Rerksirisuk, the Managing Editor of the Prachatai website, and Ubonrat Siriyuwasak, a former lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Communication Arts.
 
The hearing began with Chiranuch. The defendant’s lawyer, from the Office of the Attorney General, asked about the article which alleges that the Abhisit government is an aristocrat military-appointed government. The lawyer said that the article deviates from fact since the appointment of the government was constitutional. 
 
Chiranuch replied that Prachatai’s objective is to be a public platform for expressing ideas, so an author’s opinion does not have to agree with the editors and this goal is explicitly stated at the top of every article. Moreover, the allegation that the Abhisit government was appointed with the involvement of the military was regularly mentioned by both red-shirt leaders and columnists. The news story about the red-shirt group in Chiang Mai was also widely reported by various media such as Matichon Online, Kom Chad Luek, and Thai News Agency. 
 
The lawyer also asked about the photo of the banner ‘Uproot Aristocrat Government.’ She answered that the photo was on the webboard (prachataiwebboard.com) which is a discussion space and has no involvement with the editorial team. The photo was posted by a webboard user and it also generally appeared in other media which reported on the protest. More importantly, the government’s order to block the website did not include the webboard. 
 
The second plaintiff’s witness was Chuwat. He said that the controversial article aims to comment on news that the military invited the leaders of various political parties to a meeting in a military barrack and this news story was published by many media organizations from late 2008 onwards. Chuwat also insisted to the court that Prachatai has no involvement with the red-shirt protest and the problematic photo was not on the website which was blocked.
 
Ubolrat, the third witness, told the court that in a democratic society, a controversial article can be published since it is merely a general comment. Those who disagree with the article can also write their own to exchange ideas. They can even sue the author for defamation of character but the shutdown of the whole website will affect readers’ interests and the range of media content within society.
 
The next day, the court heard the defence witness. The only witness was Aree Jiworarak, a MICT official. He said the MICT was not responsible for the shutdown of the website as it received an order from the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), the government-appointed body with the mission to handle the red-shirt protests. He concluded that the shutdown of website is not a judgement of MICT.    
 
He said that after the Emergency Decree was enacted, stories about the red-shirt demonstrations could be published as long as they did not instigate social conflict or chaos. He also added that although the problematic article did not explicitly threaten the government to dissolve the parliament, the overall content could be interpreted in such a sense.
 
The court will rule the case on 11 July 2016.
 
Six years ago, when the anti-establishment red-shirt supporters staged mass demonstrations in March-May 2010, the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration from the pro-establishment Democrat Party ordered the blocking of Prachatai and 36 other websites under the Emergency Decree for allegedly disseminating information which may affect national security.
 
The order was effective from 8 April to 22 December 2010. Prachatai was blocked for 258 days in total. Prachatai created several alternative URLs to circumvent the censorship. These URLs, however, were also blocked. 
 
Prachatai first filed the case in the Civil Court on 23 April 2010 against five defendants: Abhisit Vejjajiva (then PM), Suthep Thaugsuban (the director of CRES), Ranongrak Suwanchawee (ICT Minister), MICT and the Ministry of Finance. However, the court dismissed the case, reasoning that the authorities can censor the media under the Emergency Decree.  
 
However, Prachatai appealed the verdict to the Court of Appeal, arguing an abuse of government power, since Prachatai did not violate Article 9 of the Emergency Decree. The court ruled that Prachatai could file the case but it must be against only MICT and the Ministry of Finance.  The Ministries appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court confirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal.     
 

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