(Apr. 9, 2010) On March 31, 2010, public prosecutors in Thailand filed a lawsuit against webmaster Chiranuch Premchaipom on charges of failing to remove comments deemed offensive to the country's monarchy from the discussion board of Prachatai.com, the independent online news website that Chiranuch directs. She has been released on bail, set at THB300,000 (about US$9,200). The first hearing on the case is set for May 31, 2010. (Southeast Asian Press Alliance [SEAPA], Thai Webmaster Charged for Violating Computer-Related Crime Act, PRACHATAI, http://www.prachatai.com/english/node/1698 (last visited Apr. 1, 2010).)
The prosecutorial investigation had been conducted for a year prior to the lawsuit being brought. The first charge that led to Chiranuch's being arrested on March 6, 2009, was brought under the Computer Crime Act [CCA], which entered into force on July 18, 2007. (Campaign for Popular Media Reform, An Unofficial Translation of the Computer Crime Act [published July 24, 2007] [CCA Translation], PRACHATAI, http://www.prachatai.com/english/node/117 (last visited Apr. 7, 2010).) On April 7, 2009, another nine similar charges were lodged against Chiranuch, each corresponding to comments that appeared between April and June 2008 on the website. The charges are reportedly based on articles 14 and 15 of the CCA, as well as article 91 of the Criminal Code and article 4 of the Code's 1983 Amendment Act (Sixth Issue). (SEAPA, supra; Criminal Code B.E. 2499 (1956) As Amended Until the Criminal Code (No. 17), B.E. 2547 (2003) [in English] [Criminal Code], THAILAWS.COM, http://thailaws.com/law/t_laws/tlaw50001.pdf (last visited Apr. 7, 2010).) Chiranuch could face up to 50 years' imprisonment upon conviction on all counts. (Id.)
Article 14 of the CCA prescribes a sentence of imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of up to THB100,000, or both, for, among other acts:
- importing to a computer system false computer data in a manner that is likely to damage the country's security or cause a public panic;
- importing to a computer system any computer data related to an offense against the Kingdom's security under the Criminal Code;
- disseminating or forwarding computer data already known to be computer data under [the above provisions].
Under article 15, any service provider that intentionally supports or consents to an offense under article 14 “within a computer system under their control shall be subject to the same penalty as that imposed upon a person committing an offence” under article 14. (CCA Translation, supra.)
The offense of lèse majesté is covered under article 112 of the Criminal Code. It states: “[w]hoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” (Criminal Code, supra.)
The CCA, according to some critics, takes aim at bloggers and websites that have criticized the military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra and that have implicated the monarchy in the political battle between Thaksin's opponents and supporters. One blogger convicted under the law was meted a 20-year prison term in April 2009. At least six other persons face similar charges, but Chiranuch is described as the most prominent personage to be prosecuted under the controversial Act. (SEAPA, supra.)
An editorial in the Thai newspaper THE NATION expressed concern on the toll that the prosecution against Chiranuch might take on Thai freedom of expression:
Back in 2005, His Majesty the King himself said that he, in the person of the monarch, was not, and should not be, above criticism. However, conservative bureaucrats – of which this country is not in short supply – and concerned authorities are not paying attention to His Majesty's words.
Like it or not, the prosecutors' decision to file a lawsuit against Chiranuch Premchaiporn … under the Computer Crimes Act will serve as a new paradigm shift in Thailand's long-standing tolerance of free expression. And it will instil fear in some quarters. … If those backward-thinking individuals are singling out Chiranuch as a scapegoat, then the future of our freedom of expression will be rolled backed further.
(A Dark Day for Thai Freedom of Expression, THE NATION (Bangkok), Apr. 5, 2010, available at http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/04/05/opinion/A-Dark-day-for-T
hai-freedom-of-expression-30126365.html; see also Wendy Zeldin, Political Activist Sentenced to 18-Year Prison Term for Violating Lese Majeste Law, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR, Sept. 10, 2009, available at http://www.loc.gov/lawweb/servlet/WLB?disp3_1557_text.)