Thailand casts wider censorship net

Police arrested the editor of an alternative news website for publishing online comments the government deemed offensive.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – A century-old Thai law on lèse-majesté, or royal defamation, has been generating heat lately, after an Australian writer was sentenced in January to six years in prison for his writing. A Thai professor recently fled the country after being charged with the crime.

On Friday, police raided the offices of Prachatai, an alternative news website, which is among the few in Thailand to report in depth on lèse-majesté cases. Police arrested the website’s editor, Chiranuch Premchaiporn. She is accused not of lèse-majesté – which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail – but faces charges under a 2007 law that makes it a crime for websites not to delete comments deemed offensive.

Until now, the government’s approach to such comments has been twofold: blocking web pages (more than 4,000 in recent months), and detaining those who post the comments. Almost all of them relate to the monarchy, which wields huge influence in Thailand.

Thailand’s media is fairly free compared to some of its neighbors. But government interference, combined with self-censorship, can be stifling when it comes to reporting on the royal family. Prachatai launched in 2004 as an alternative to the mainstream media.

Ms. Chiranuch is the first Web operator in Thailand to be charged under the 2007 law, which was passed by a military-appointed legislature. If found guilty, she faces up to five years in prison. She has been released on bail and returned Monday to work, as the website is still operating.

“We believe in free speech and free expression. But we follow the law,” she says.

The offending comments on the monarchy were posted on Prachatai last year and were later taken down by the website. Chiranuch says the person who wrote the post was detained by police in January and faces separate criminal charges.

Harry Nicolaides, the Australian author, received a royal pardon in February and was deported to Australia. (Read the Monitor's reports on Mr. Nicolaides's saga here and here.) The publicity over his conviction and that of others accused of the crime has sparked international attention. A group of 50 academics launched a campaign last week to reform the law.

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