Simon Roughneen in Bangkok – Freedom of speech has long been under scrutiny in Thailand, thanks to the country’s widely criticised lese majeste laws, which are supposed to protect the dignity of the revered monarchy.
Yet recent developments in two high-profile cases have given some cause for optimism among opponents of the laws and their oft-cited use as a tool against dissent. The case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, head of news website Prachatai, was postponed until September because the slower-than-expected pace of hearings in the case were expected to delay other cases on the judge’s schedule.
Chiranuch stands accused of lese majeste, not over anything that she said herself but 10 anonymous comments – long-since removed from the Prachatai site – singled out by state prosecutors as insulting to the monarchy.
In a minor victory, the judge permitted the supposedly offending statements to be read aloud – though this was undermined somewhat by poorly functioning microphones in the room.
Another victory of sorts was registered when the lese-majeste trial that resulted in the conviction of Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, a prominent supporter of the “red shirt” opposition protest movement better known as “Da Torpedo”, was ruled a mistrial.
The appeal court agreed with Daranee that her original trial behind closed doors was unconstitutional, giving additional hope to freedom-of-speech advocates.
At her trial in 2009, Daranee, a supporter of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for comments she made at a political rally. The harshness of the sentence and the fact that the trial was conducted behind closed doors was widely condemned.
Chiranuch herself said that the mistrial ruling two weeks ago shows that the judiciary in Thailand can work on an impartial level, and that this “can support freedom of expression here”. Daranee’s lawyer Prawais Prapanuyool said after the ruling that his client was seeking release on bail as soon as possible, but that “we need one million Thai baht (HK$254,300] to cover this, we are appealing for financial assistance”.
Daranee, who has already spent a year and a half in jail, must now take her case to the Constitutional Court.
The Prachatai case and the Daranee case are linked in more than one sense. One of the charges against Chiranuch is based on a Web link from her site to an audio file on another site of a speech made by Daranee. The file was transcribed and added to the police charges against Chiranuch. But there is no case against the file’s uploader, who remains unidentified. If found guilty, Chiranuch faces 50years’ jail.
Even a diligent webmaster would find it difficult to satisfy the scrutiny of Thailand’s prosecutors. During cross-examination by Chiranuch’s lawyers, Thanit Prapathanan, a legal adviser to Thailand’s Ministry for Information and Communications Technology, said that even if a webmaster took down messages that were deemed insulting to the monarchy, a case could be launched as there was nonetheless a breach of Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act.
The legal prohibitions on what can and cannot be said in Thailand remain in place, despite developments in the two cases.
Nicholas Farrelly, an academic at the Australian National University who helps run the widely read New Mandala blog on Southeast Asia, said: “Anxiety about what kind of speech will draw the attention of the authorities is completely understandable and I doubt that this will change much in the wake of Da Torpedo’s recent success or the suspension of Chiranuch’s trial.”
Since the military coup that ousted Thaksin in September 2006, Thailand’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index has dropped from 107 to 153 last year.
Niw Wong, of the iLaw Project, which monitors Thai freedom of speech on the internet, said blocking of websites increased during times of political unrest.
“During the protests of March-May 2010, the level of blocking increased very significantly”, with emergency laws used to close radio stations and block websites without recourse to any legal process.
Danny O’Brien, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said various judicial measures had had “a chilling effect” on free speech and online debate in a country where Web use was growing. About 26 per cent of Thailand’s 66 million people use the internet, said Supinya Klangnarong, of the Thai Netizens Network.
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s representative in Thailand, welcomed the Daranee mistrial ruling as “a positive sign of the judiciary’s impartiality and independence and the rule of law”.
He added: “The lese-majeste law itself runs counter to Thailand’s freedom of expression obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
On February 22, just hours before seven redshirt leaders detained since May 19 2010 were freed on bail, Surachai Danwattananusorn, a leader of a redshirt splinter group called “Red Siam” was arrested for remarks made in December, that were deemed offensive to the monarchy.Show