Slandering the Thai royal family can lead to long prison termsImage: AP
Thai court convincts Premchaiporn
June 1, 2012
A Bangkok court has found a journalist guilty of lese majesty for not removing insulting remarks to the royal family from her newspaper's website. The EU has voiced its "deep concern."
A Thai journalist has been convicted of lese majesty for failing to remove anonymous comments from a website quickly enough. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, of the independent online newspaper "Prachatai," was accused of not removing remarks about the king and queen from the paper's online forum in 2009.
Premchaiporn, 44, who had faced a possible 20-year jail sentence under controversial computer and royal insult legislation, was given an eight-month suspended sentence and a $630 fine by a Bangkok court wednesday. The European Union Thursday expressed "deep concern" over the sentence, saying said the guilty verdict would have "damaging effects".
Thailand has a strict lese-majesty law, a law that prohibits any slander against the royal family. The Thai law punishes the offence more harshly than murder. Yet, since the coup in 2006, the government has used the lese majesty rules more often to crack down on critical voices, particularly on the internet.
More than 600,000 websites are currently blocked, most because of the suspicion of insulting the monarchy.
Premchaiporn didn't post the comments herself, but she is alleged to have left the comments on her newspaper's website too long. The court found that her failure to protect the king from criticism was a serious a crime, almost as grave as slandering him. But, Premchaiporn said, "The law doesn't give any rules or regulations for what constitutes 'too long', neither are there any practical examples, nor is there any existing jurisprudence."
The American activist CJ Hinke founded the NGO Freedom against Censorship Thailand. He's been reporting every day about the hearing on his blog. Hinke thinks the comments were mild. "They referred to the king as 'the blind father' because he is nearly blind in one eye from a childhood auto accident. The queen was referred to as 'mama blue' because of course, she is the mother of the nation and her royal color is blue. Are these insulting?"
Is slander worse than murder?
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. The king is the most important authority in the country. Golden-framed pictures of the monarch hang in every public space and even in private homes. The highest duty of every Thai citizen is to honor the king.
The so-called lese majesty law states that anyone who defames, insults, or threatens the king, the queen, or their heirs will be sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Yet the law does not give a concrete definition of what constitutes an "offense".
The court had been expected to issue Chiranuch Premchaiporn a verdict on April 30th, but then postponed a ruling until May 30th. Her case is highly symbolic because it's the first of its kind to deal with third party reliability. The ruling has set a precedent. In the future, other people might also be sued for not stopping slander against the royal family. Even posting a link to an article or "liking" something on Facebook that criticizes the king would be punishable by law.
Anyone can file a lese-majesty with the police, which then goes to the office of the prosecution. Benjamin Zawacki from Amnesty International explained that once a person is charged, the chances of being acquitted are slim. "Anyone essentially can be prosecuted for this law," Zawacki said. "The conviction rate is well over 90%, so essentially once you are accused, it's virtually as if you are guilty until proven innocent."
The accused generally make a confession quickly in the hope that the king will at least pardon them. Human rights groups say that politicians abuse the law in order to increase their own power.
Guilty until proved innocent
Ever since the coup d'etat in 2006, the law has been used 16 times the rate than before, especially against the opposition and journalists. About 500 cases are taken to court every year.
Shawn Crispin of the New York non-profit organization Committee to Protect Journalists sees a link between the Thai government's agenda and high-profile cases like Premchaiporn's. "They are trying to send a message to all journalists: this is an area you are not allowed to go to, this is still taboo. And if you dare tread into this space you run the risk of similar charges," Crispin said.
Reporters Without Borders views the lese-majesty law as a threat to freedom of the press. Strong censorship has been limiting freedom of opinion primarily on the internet since Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in June 2011. Reporters without Borders maintains that politicians are abusing the law.
The new government has intensified internet surveillance, blocking nearly 700 additional sites daily.
A public debate about changing the law wasn't possible for many years. No politician would dare bring up the topic. The danger of being reported to the police would be too great. But despite this problem, critical voices have been growing for about two years.
A call for reform
Independent groups organize protests, hunger strikes, and marches on a regular basis in order to increase pressure on the government. Members of the "Red Shirts" have been giving a lot of support to these groups. They too have been calling for a reform of the lese-majesty law.
The UN, the EU, some Thai celebrities, and even eight members of the royal family have been calling for clear reduction of sentences, and other changes.
Protesters, like 68-year-old Red Shirt member Prichan, are using unusually critical words these days. "The monarchy is not the god," he said, adding that the royal family should treat people as equals instead of looking down on them. "He is a simple man. So listen to us, talk with us, so we can both go together. But the monarchy and the people surround, will not accept this idea, they are trying to beat us. That's why they think the people is only the tiny matter under their feet."
King Bhumibol did claim in a speech in 2005 that people should be allowed to criticize him, but that hasn't changed anything so far. Wrestling over the highly sensitive law might become a long process despite the ever-increasing public pressure to reform it.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has already announced that she will not permit any changes to the law, so as not to appear disloyal to the king. A parliamentary committee is currently working on this issue. Meanwhile, critics fear the consequences of Premchaiporn's verdict for future censorship cases.