Government on “trial” over policy on freedom of expression

On 26 August, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung declared that the new government will effectively disregard the need to restore freedom of speech and press under attack since the start of the political crisis in 2006.

Speaking at the parliament, Chalerm announced that one of the top priorities of the newly formed government will be to crackdown on websites with lese majeste content and it will set up a “war room” for the purpose. The spelling out of “war room” seems to be a follow up to his statement two days earlier, made in response to opposition MP Supachai Jaisamut in the parliament, that “no one in the ruling party supports amending lese majeste”.

Besides Chalerm, another government minister who made a similarly alarming point is the Minister of Information and Communication Technology (MICT), Group Captain Anudit Nakorntap. He said on 13 August that his ministry will be even more stringent in enforcing lese majeste and the Computer Crimes Act (CCA), which contains clauses of the former. Anudit and Chalerm’s “war room” statement immediately brings to mind internet censorship of the last government under Abhisit Vejjajiva, which has organized trainings to unleash cyber vigilantes of perceived lese majeste.

A recent victim of the vigilantes’ witch-hunt activities is university graduate Norawase Yospiyasathien. His alleged crime was re-posting text from a socio-political discussion web board, formerly known as Fa Diew Kan (Same Sky), to his Windows Live Page. Fellow students tipped off the university’s Rector, who then filed a case leading to Norawase’s arrest under lese majeste and CCA and subsequent release on bail in early August.

Developments in two other cases in the period between the Puea Thai party’s electoral victory in July and Chalerm’s latest announcement give no signs for optimism.

A Thai-born but naturalized American citizen, Joe Gordon, was charged on 18 August for translating part of a banned biography of the King by an American journalist and writing a defamatory article. Gordon denies the charges.

Two days later, Redshirts magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was denied bail along with a Redshirt activist, Surachai Danwattananusorm. Somyot has been detained since 30 April and was charged on 25 July for publishing two offending articles penned by an anonymous person. Surachai on the other hand was detained since 22 February and charged for making lese majeste speeches last December.

Except for Surachai, the other three were accused on the basis of being intermediaries while the actual creator of the lese majeste contents escaped untraceable or not liable to Thai laws. Come September, freedom of expression advocates’ attention will be again called to the trial the of Executive Director for news site Prachatai, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who faces up to a maximum of fifteen years in jail percharge, for ten charges under the CCA in relation to comments posted on to the web board of Prachatai. The trial continues on September 1 after the scheduled session was postponed on February 12. The court will hear in twelve days time nine more prosecution witnesses and eight from the defense.

The previous proceedings, which heard the testimonies of five witnesses (from the MICT, the police, a scientist, and a lawyer), has so far exposed glaring problems in the enforcement agencies, further demonstrating the arbitrary nature of laws on lese majeste.

It showed that as far as the authorities were concerned, the interpretation of offenders could also include those who alluded to or made references to the monarchy, made references to a convicted lese majeste offender, or recalling certain factual accounts concerning the monarchy. The overbearing effect of the law was manifested in the courtroom itself, where the judge, prosecutors and witness all deliberately reduced their voice to murmuring among themselves when the offending items were read out, and evidence not printed out in fear of violation of the law.

Such fear has prevailed outside the courtroom and is feeding a culture of witch-hunting responsible for the arrest of Norawase. The media reported that his arrest and identity were splashed across the social media as a trophy by a vigilante group known as Social Sanction, or SS in short. The actual number of such groups cannot be known, but victims, when not taken in under laws like Norawase, have been subject to hate speech and intimidation tactics.  The ill-defined law, allowing anyone to file an accusation, and the government’s tacit approval such as Chalerm’s and Anudit’s statements, are all that is needed by the vigilantes, putting enormous risk to media practitioners, online commentators, and the sharing of informations which the internet has been chiefly used for.

Whether or not the present culture of witch-hunting is to be given further legitimacy to strengthen its chilling grip on freedom of expression, is exactly the reason why Chiranuch’s trial and outcome will be keenly observed.

Irrespective of the court decision, Thai writers, intellectuals and activists have spoken out for more discussion about the law and its reform. They have voiced out against the continuing regression in freedom of expression in Thailand, once seen as among the few more democratic countries in Southeast Asia until the political crisis erupted. The Yingluck’s administration should not precipitate an even greater decline especially since she committed in her administration’s policy statement last week to reform laws and the judiciary based on principles of rule of law, and application of law with equality, fairness and transparency.

 


About SEAPA

SEAPA (http://www.seapabkk.org/) is the only regional organization with the  specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom andResponsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). SEAPA also has partners in Cambodia, East Timor, and exiled Burmese media, and undertakes projects and programs for press freedom throughout the region.

For inquiries, please contact us at: seapa [at] seapa [dot] org or call +662 243 5579.