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(New York) – The conviction of a prominent website manager on computer crimes charges highlights the Thai government’s growing misuse of laws intended to protect the monarchy. Imposing a prison sentence adds to the climate of fear and self-censorship in Thailand’s media, Human Rights Watch said.

On May 30, 2012, the Bangkok Criminal Court found Chiranuch Premchaiporn guilty of computer crimes and sentenced her to one year in prison, which the court then reduced to eight months and suspended. Chiranuch is the prominent website manager of the online news portal Prachatai and the September 2011 recipient of Human Rights Watch’s Hellman/Hammett Award for journalists under threat.

“By convicting the manager of a news website of a crime, the Thai authorities are showing the lengths they are willing to go to stifle free expression,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “More and more web moderators and internet service providers will censor discussions about the monarchy out of fear they too may be prosecuted for other people’s comments.” 

Police arrested Chiranuch on March 6, 2009 during the crackdown on online media with content that the government considered offensive to the monarchy initiated by the government of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. She was charged under the Penal Code and the Computer Crimes Act as an internet service provider, or intermediary, for 10 alleged lese majeste statements posted by others on the Prachatai web-board between April and November 2008.

Under Thailand’s Penal Code, breaches of lese majeste – insulting the monarchy – are considered threats to national security. Internet service providers are required to promptly remove any content deemed offensive to the monarchy and turn over details of those who post such content when requested by the authorities. The Computer Crimes Act provides that any service provider “intentionally supporting or consenting” to posting of unlawful content is subject to the same penalty imposed on the poster, which is a maximum imprisonment of five years per offense. Holding internet service providers liable is a particularly pernicious practice that makes third parties responsible for the content of others, effectively turning them into the enforcers and censors for the government, Human Rights Watch said.

Frank La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, strongly condemned such practices in his May 2011 report to the UN Human Rights Council, stating that “no State should use or force intermediaries to undertake censorship on its behalf.” He said that “holding intermediaries liable for content disseminated or created by their users severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, because it leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law.”   

Since the September 2006 coup, Thai authorities have increasingly applied lese majeste laws, under the Penal Code and the Computer Crimes Act, to anyone alleged to have criticized the monarchy. Despite its promises to restore respect for human rights in Thailand, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which took office in August 2011, has shown little interest in ending lese majeste crackdowns initially launched by previous governments. Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung told the Parliament on August 26, 2011 that lese majeste “will not be allowed during this government.” In December the government established a so-called “war room” at police headquarters in Bangkok to supervise the surveillance on lese majeste websites. Since then, more than 5,000 webpages (URLs) with alleged lese majeste content have been shut down.

“A criminal conviction for an internet intermediary in a lese majeste case marks a new low in Thailand’s intolerance of free speech,” Adams said.  

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