BANGKOK – Tuesday is Day Two in the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, in what is being described as a landmark case for freedom of expression in Thailand.
Ms Chiranuch, who executive director of the self-described independent news-site Prachatai, is accused of 10 different violations of Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crime Act (CCA), each of which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
However she is not accused of writing or saying anything defamatory herself, as the case stems from comments posted by users of the Prachatai Web board that authorities say are defamatory of the Thai monarchy–a criminal offense under Thai law. She has been charged under the CCA’s Article 15, with the prosecution making the case webmasters are liable for comments posted by third parties on their websites.
Interest from local and international media, as well as NGOs and international organisations, meant that the hearing had to be moved from the smaller courtroom 703 to the larger 701 down the hallway at Bangkok’s Criminal Court, where the judge sat, as is the norm in a Thai courtroom, under a framed photograph of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyedej, Thailand’s monarch since 1946.
Proceedings were hard to follow, without working microphones and with the day’s main witness, Mr Aree Jivorarak, who is head of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology’s (MICT) IT Regulation Bureau, seated with his back to the gallery. A moment of light entertainment came half-way through the afternoon session when the lawyers and the young-looking team of judges finally managed to get microphones working. Thai-English translation was provided by legal and student activists sitting among the foreign observers and reporters in the gallery.
The early part of the hearing was devoted to some technical discussion, involving the single public prosecutor present, of the meaning of various web-related terms – such as ISP or URL – and then to issues at the core of the case, such as the liability of web-masters, website managers, and directors for content posted by third parties.
A discussion also took place about the meaning of these latter terms, and whether the difference between a ‘web-master’ and ‘manager’ could have a bearing on liability.
Mr Aree told the court that when advised of the comments by his Ministry, Chiranuch had them removed from the web-board, but that the time elapsed between the postings and their removal meant that a case could be made. Mr Aree said that websites should have blocking software or programmes to help “screen” comments by third parties in advance of their appearance online.
While the discussion went into technical detail about website terminology, and then focused on specific points or comments relating to the online postings, this was carried out in the same almost-inaudible manner, without use of powerpoint or any visual props that would help clarify and highlight the points being made.
During the afternoon, leafing through an A5-sized copy of the CCA, one of Chiranuch’s lawyers asked the witness whether expressing “disagreement” with the Thai monarchy was an offence on the same level as “insulting” or “defaming”. The witness replied that it was not, but that the commentator should keep his/her remarks private. The discussion centred on comments posted on Prachatai’s web-board about the appointment of Privy Council members and related remarks about the 2006 military coup in Thailand, which removed then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office.
The hearings resume tomorrow, with the conclusion of Mr Aree’s testimony. Eight days total hearings are scheduled, though it appears that the proceedings are already behind schedule. A verdict is due by April. After the first day hearing last Friday February 4, Chiranuch, known as ‘Jiew’ to her friends, told this correspondent that she “feels better about the case now, than a month ago”, though confessed that she could not second-guess the outcome of the case.
While lese-majeste is an offence in Thailand, the country’s Constitution upholds freedom of expression, and this case may be a litmus test of how well free speech in Thailand holds up over other provisions in law, such as the CCA.
In a report published in December 2010, the iLaw Project estimated that the Thai authorities ordered 38,868 websites and Web pages blocked in 2010 for publishing anti-royal content, though others believe that the total amount of blocked content may exceed these numbers. The same report found that 185 people had been charged under the CCA since it was introduced in 2007.Show