Thanthawut Taweewarodomkul (ธันย์ฐวุฒิ ทวีวโรดมกุล), a Web designer associated with the website, norporchorusa.com, was sentenced to 13 years in prison “for transgressing Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law and breaching the Computer Crime Act.” (Source: Political Prisoners in Thailand)
The website in question has been branded by the Thai government as subversive as it is linked to the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). The UDD are also known as the Red Shirts, the faction that clashed with Thailand’s conservative royalists in early 2010. (For a brief history of that event, please read this article.)
According to Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT), Thanthawut was falsely labeled as the webmaster of the ‘offending’ website: he had no administrative access whatsoever. He was just the designer of the site. If anything, he should just have been charged as an accomplice — that is, if the charge was even legal at all. Some believe that Thanthawut is being made an example of what those in control could inflict upon those who would challenge their power.
Thailand’s Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but the government’s interpretation of lèse majesté and the Computer Crime Act of 2007 are regarded as too overreaching and rather convoluted. Consider, for instance, the case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn of Prachatai, an online publication that advocates for freedom of expression in Thailand. If convicted, Chiranuch faces five decades in prison for having allegedly violated the same laws.
I had the privilege of meeting Chiranuch (a.k.a. Jiew) in Hong Kong in June last year, at the Regional Internet Governance Forum. That was when she told our Southeast Asian civil society delegation about her case. In a nutshell, the Thai authorities charged her, citing the two laws mentioned above, for being the director of Prachatai, which was found to have hosted comments that were allegedly defamatory against the king. Prachatai is a popular alternative news portal that also featured a forum. The offensive comments were posted on the forum by anonymous users. Jiew removed them as soon as she discovered them; but it was too late, the police had obviously already been monitoring Prachatai.com.
In Thailand, there is such a thing as intermediary liability. Thankfully, we do not have that in the Philippines, as asserted by the Pasig court in the 2007 libel case against Abe Olandres. (Ref.: Inquirer article)
Jiew told us that her arraignment would be in February 2011. In September 2010, we were together again for two conferences in Europe. When she returned to Bangkok, she was arrested at the airport. It’s still not clear why she was detained, and she was made to spend a night in jail, and had to cough up a ridiculous amount of money for bail (US$6,000, if I remember right). I have an idea why it happened.
In Vilnius, Lithuania, at the commencement of the 5th Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, various groups delivered statements to the United Nations to air their positions with regards the numerous issues that were discussed during the conference. In behalf of the Southeast Asian delegates, who are primarily concerned with fighting for Internet freedom and human rights in the region, I read our statement to the assembly and in front of representatives from the U.N. Our statement was decidedly forceful. To summarize, we condemned authoritarian governments that espoused censorship and curtailed free expression, and called on the United Nations to support efforts in guaranteeing this basic human right.
During the IGF, and at the Internet at Liberty 2010 conference held in Budapest, Hungary right after the IGF, Jiew drew a lot of attention because of her pending court case, which many freedom activists from all over the world view as downright repressive. Having been with her during the whole time, I can attest that Jiew never said anything that should have offended the Thai government. In fact, it is clear that she loves her country and is concerned only about human rights in Thailand.
The statement we delivered, however, must have incensed Thai authorities who probably interpreted it as an affront to their authority; hence, Jiew was promptly picked up at the airport right after arriving from a 14-hour international flight.
Thailand’s criminal code against lèse majestè, in my opinion, is being used by a repressive government to silence dissidents. Thai law does not clearly state what constitutes “defamation” or “insult” against the royal family, so that authorities are free to interpret it as they see fit. On the other hand, the reigning monarch himself has, on his birthday in 2005, declared, “Actually, I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Jiew told me once that the law against lèse majestè, and how the government chooses to interpret it, are so confounding to most Thais that they have resorted to not discussing the royal family in public at all. Merely saying that the king was sick could be deemed illegal.
Thailand’s Computer Crime Act (CCA) is also a broad-strokes type of legal instrument. According to Thai activists, authorities employ it to quash any form of civil disobedience or dissident action. Since activism today makes use of technology — as shown in Egypt, for one — the Thai government seems to have found a good way to make use of the CCA to counter any sort of opposition.
In the Philippines, moves by our legislators to enact laws similar to Thailand’s CCA are already in motion. There are certain congressmen who are pushing for laws that would ‘protect against cyber-crime’, but such run the danger of being too broad in scope as to be rendered either inutile or exploitive. Even the National Bureau of Investigation has come out proposing to have laptops registered in aid of police work. (Shouldn’t they be focusing their energies on improving their forensic skills instead?)
Compared to some of our Asian neighbors, we do enjoy much freedom in the Philippines. We have a free press, and many of our bloggers still think they can say pretty much anything without the fear of landing in jail. On the other hand, the incredible number of journalists who have been killed in action since the time of Gloria Arroyo is a blight to our freedom.
We must remain vigilant against possible encroachments by government, and by other entities, upon our human rights and freedoms. We, Filipino bloggers, must keep in mind that we have a voice that must never be silenced so long as that voice is proclaiming our right to be free.