Thailand silences winner of International Women's Media Foundation Award
Chiranuch Premchaiporn on trial in Thailand
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, also known as Jiew, is the executive director and news editor for a Thai independent news portal called Prachatai.
Prachatai.com contains news, forum, and analysis on political and social affairs and human rights issues in Thailand. It often carries contents and stories not published in mainstream media.
During the 2010 mass anti-government protests by the "red-shirts", Pratachai was one of the many online sites blocked multiple times by the Thai government. Prachatai.com suspended its web forum in 2010 due to concerted pressure and censorship by the government.
She is also a founding member of Thai Netizen Network (TNN), a group of media activists, internet users, bloggers, and IT academics who monitor violations of freedom of expression on the internet.
Chiranuch was recently named a winner of the International Women's Media Foundation 2011 Courage in Journalism Award and will be officially honoured in Los Angeles and New York in October.
Computer Crimes Act and Lèse Majesté
Prachatai's offices were first raided by the Crime Suppression police in March 2009 and Chiranuch was arrested and charged on the grounds of violating the Computer-related Crimes Act, which relates to offences that threatens Thailand's national security. She was later released on bail.
While awaiting trial on those charges, Chiranuch was arrested again upon her return from a Google conference on Internet Freedom across the world in Budapest in September 2010. She was accused of 'intentionally' disseminating inflammatory contents posted by readers on Prachatai's website, not Chiranuch herself. The materials published discussed the Thai royal family that is considered offensive to the monarchy, and the military coup in 2006. According to the arrest warrant, this endangers Thailand's national security. Ironically, the lèse majesté charges against the person who posted the comments on Prachatai have been dropped while Chiranuch is still being charged. While on bail, she was required to travel to a remote police station each month to report to the local authority.
Chiranuch is currently facing ten different criminal charges under Thailand's Computer Crime Act, as well as similar criminal code charges. If found guilty, each violation carries a maximum penalty of up to 5 years imprisonment. She is also accused of insulting the monarchy, a particularly serious offence called lèse majesté in Thailand.
Thailand’s criminal code states that whoever defames, insults or threatens the royal family, faces up to 15 years in prison.
The media is not spared either. Human rights advocates are concerned that the recent succession of lèse majesté charges against academics, journalists and political opponents of the government have created a "climate of fear" within the country. The lèse majesté law that was once used cautiously is now implemented with high frequency. According to David Streckfuss, an academic, says the number of lèse majesté charges has increased from “just 2.5 on average in the 1980s to 164 in 2009. Many of the accused are jailed.”
Immediately after the political violence in April and May 2010 that saw many wounded and killed, the Thai government announced that it had blocked access in Thailand to thousands of websites on grounds that they violated the lèse majesté law and national security. It is estimated that over 43,000 websites were blocked when a national State of Emergency was imposed in 2010, in response to the anti-government protests. The Thai government is concerted in its efforts to clamp down and persecute political opponents and peaceful dissidents by enforcing online censorship using the Computers Crime Act and the charge of lèse majesté.
The Computer Crime Act was originally intended to prevent cyber crimes like hacking but most prosecutions are so far for online content which allegedly insults the monarchy and a threat to national security.
Media freedom advocates say the computer law in Thailand allow authorities to limit online opinion critical of the government or is politically challenging, rendering any discussion impossible. Based on UNHCR's report, the computer law has caused Thailand's international press ranking to drop significantly since 2005.
Labour MP Tom Watson raised the case of Chiranuch in British parliament, calling on the Thai government to review the situation:
"That this House notes with concern the case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the Director of Thai news website Prachatai.com, who is on trial in Thailand under its Computer Crime Act for not removing third party comments criticising the monarchy from her website quickly enough and who, if convicted, faces a maximum sentence of 50 years in jail; believes that this action threatens Thailand's reputation for tolerance of free expression and risks creating a climate of fear; further notes with concern that this particular law has led to thousands of websites being blocked in Thailand; opposes web blocking and censorship; and calls on the government of Thailand to review the situation."
Freedom of expression
Chiranuch's case has drawn support from human rights, free speech advocacy groups and people in Thailand and abroad. Freedom of expression and the current state of media is an issue that needs addressing in Thailand. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says lèse-majesté laws should be used to protect the king from being criticised and dragged into party politics, but acknowledges that there are problems with the over-enthusiastic enforcement. Human rights and civil liberties are fundamentally intertwined and crucial for democracy. The broad ranging censorship in itself and the charges laid on Chiranuch is a violation of Thailand’s under international human rights law.
Chiranuch shares her views:
"When we talk about press freedom in Thailand, it’s quite controlled by the state and being manipulated by the entertainment business and the corporates. If you talk about news and politics, we cannot show as much criticism, about what the government did, right or wrong. Most of the media in Thailand is owned by the military or by the state. This is a problem of ownership... When the people have no rights to express or to share their thoughts, their feelings, we cannot say that we are living in a democratic society," ," says Chiranuch.
Chiranuch denies all charges and went on trial in February, the next part of her trial is scheduled in September. If convicted and imprisoned, she will be a prisoner of conscience, "jailed merely for exercising freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."
New Mandala, Amnesty International, BBC, Political Prisoner, UNHCR, FSRN