Website editor's trial in Thailand a test case for media freedom

The editor of the popular Thai website Prachatai.com faces up to 50 years in jail for hosting comments that the government charges undermine national security.

By , Correspondent

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    This 2010 file photo shows Prachatai web manager Chiranuch Premchaiporn searching on the Internet at her office in Bangkok. Chiranuch faces up to 50 years in a Thai jail for comments somebody else wrote on her website, in a case that starkly illustrates the politically divided country's deteriorating freedom of expression.
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In a closely watched test case for media freedom in Thailand, a website editor went on trial Friday over antimonarchy comments posted on a Web forum. Under Thailand’s tough cybercrime law, website administrators can be held liable for hosting illegal content, including material that undermines national security.

If found guilty on 10 counts, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor and webmaster of Prachatai.com, faces up to 50 years in jail. She denies the charges and says that she cooperated with government requests to remove offensive postings. A verdict in the trial is expected by early April.

A close US ally, Thailand was once seen as an outpost of media freedom in Southeast Asia. But its reputation has fallen sharply in recent years. Crackdowns on political street protests have been accompanied by increased restrictions on online media, with tens of thousands of websites blocked by court order or under emergency military rule.

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Media-freedom activists say Ms. Chiranuch’s case is part of this broader trend of censorship and has helped to chill online debate. Prachatai closed its online forums last year and other popular sites have either closed forums or restricted the use of anonymous comments. Web operators argue that it’s impossible to screen real-time comments for illegal content.

Shawn Crispin, a representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists who attended Friday’s hearing, said Chiranuch was the first Thai webmaster tried under the Computer Crime Act, which was passed in 2007 by a military-appointed legislature. “We believe she shouldn’t be held liable for content posted by an anonymous poster,” he says.

Much of the wave of censorship concerns the role of Thailand’s royal family in the country’s turbulent politics. Strict lèse-majesté laws prevent open discussion of the monarchy, and scores of people have been prosecuted in recent years for offending the crown. The mainstream media rarely report on such cases, and families of the accused often prefer anonymity.

During Friday’s hearing, a prosecution witness described a string of comments on Prachatai’s web forum that related to the monarchy. He claimed that the website had also hosted an audio clip by a supporter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The same activist was convicted in 2009 of defaming the monarchy and sentenced to 18 years in jail.

A separate criminal charge against Chiranuch is pending in a regional court. Under a century-old lèse-majesté law, which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years, anyone can file a complaint for speech or words that defame members of the royal family. Foreign journalists have also faced accusations, though none have been charged.

Conservatives argue that the law is justified and accuse Mr. Thaksin's supporters of orchestrating a campaign to undermine the monarchy, which is seen as vulnerable due to the ill health of the elderly ruler, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He has been confined to a hospital since September 2009.

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