Chiranuch Premchaiporn looks an unlikely threat to national security. Yet the diminutive editor of Thailand’s popular Prachatai news website sat in a Bangkok court last week listening to a police colonel outline evidence that could land her in prison for up to 20 years.
Her alleged crime was to fail to remove quickly enough comments posted by an anonymous reader that prosecutors say breached Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté laws. Officially designed to protect the country’s king from insult, the law is increasingly seen by many as restricting freedom of speech. Ms Chiranuch is the first to be charged under lèse majesté for failing to do something.
“It has created a climate of fear,” says Ms Chiranuch of the legislation. “I didn’t say anything, I didn’t write anything, I didn’t post anything but as webmaster [editor] I am facing the penalty”.
The Chiranuch case has wider potential implications for media giants such as Google and Facebook.
“If they [internet access providers] are found to be liable, it would be very detrimental to the whole digital economy of Thailand,” says John Ure, the executive director of the Asia Internet Coalition, a pressure group set up by Google, Ebay, Skype and others. “E-commerce, social networking and the like would all be completely disrupted.”
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, is deeply revered by the majority of his people but human rights activists, academics and many ordinary Thais say the lèse majesté laws are increasingly being used to lock up opponents of Thailand’s establishment rather than protect the monarchy.
As one senior western diplomat puts it: “There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a country respecting and honouring their monarch. What is troubling is to see a government use laws designed to protect an important institution like the monarchy in a way that exacerbates social divisions, or excessively punish those who have expressed their criticisms.”
Data compiled by David Streckfuss, an academic who has written extensively on the use of lèse majesté in Thailand, show the number of prosecutions grew 15-fold between 2005 and 2010, when there were 478, a statistic that does not take into account prosecutions under the cyber equivalent law, the computer crimes act.
Akechai Hongkangwarn was charged under lèse majesté in March after allegedly distributing DVDs containing copies of an Australian Broadcasting documentary on the royal family. In April, 19 Leaders of the anti-establishment Red Shirt movement were charged with so-far unspecified lèse majesté crimes.
Prosecutions have even spread to alleged crimes committed overseas. At least two Thai-born American citizens have now been charged with lèse majesté one for providing a link on his website to an unflattering biography of King Bhumibol.