By Lisa Gardner
As reported widely and so too here at Siam Voices:
Yesterday, with the eyes of international media upon it, Thailand’s judiciary would delay the delivery of a final verdict in the ongoing case of Prachatai executive director Chiranuch Premchaiporn.
While Chiranuch is not accused of having written the offensive comments in question, she remains subject to prosecution, herself having moderated – and subsequently removed – offending commentary. Under section 15 of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act (CCA), service providers deemed to intentionally support or consent to computer crimes offences are subject to prosecution alongside that of the offending Internet user. It does not, however, specify what could be considered “soon enough” to mitigate liability under the Act. As a result, if convicted, Chiranuch could yet face a 20-year jail term.
Yesterday’s expected verdict – which was not to be – reiterated the relevance of Chiranuch’s far-reaching support-base. From the globe’s furthest flung corners, internet advocate and other human rights groups have closely monitored her case, issuing statements and consistently reiterating calls for her acquittal. Thai authorities could not have expected that the case would garner such enormous attention.
Particular coverage would be given, in mid-2011, to a visit from Frank Le Rou, United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the rights to both freedom of opinion and expression. In Bangkok he condemned the Thai government for “holding intermediaries liable for content disseminated or created by their users,” as it “leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law.”
Such cases speak to ‘internet intermediary liability’ – where Internet ‘middlemen’, ISPs, website hosting companies, website moderators and similarly neutral hosts of information – are held legally liable for content posted or uploaded by other users. Internet rights and media organisations, including Google Asia, argue that the prosecution of Internet mediators proves a grievous threat to both innovation and online free expression. Chiranuch’s conviction or acquittal could yet prove a landmark case.
Internet policy expert Kevin Bankston of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, speaking in Bangkok in March, noted that “the idea that Internet intermediaries deserve protection against liability when their users break the law may seem like a new idea, because it deals with new technology,” he said. “However, this idea is based on a simple and long-standing principle,” put simply as: “‘don’t shoot the messenger.'”
Danny O’Brien, internet advocacy co-ordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and himself one of a number of experts to submit testimony in Chiranuch’s defense, also described the charges against her as akin to “making restaurant owners liable for what diners say at the dinner table.”
In the lead-up to yesterday’s court date, Mr. O’Brien would further note that “the world has been watching Chiranuch’s case closely, because it represents a watershed in the Southeast Asian internet. If she is found guilty, we can expect a flood of other prosecutions that target the innocent… intermediaries, like Prachatai.”
WAITING ON AN EXPEDITIOUS PROCESS
In delaying the delivery of a verdict, Thai judiciary reiterate concerns may yet demonstrate lesser regard for mitigating circumstances surrounding the case – namely, its connection with the highly sensitive lese majeste law.
In a release the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) did note that “it is highly unusual for a court verdict to be postponed, and certainly unanticipated.”
They in turn hoped that the delay of the high-profile case would prove “an indication that the court will make a more careful deliberation… to give a fair judgment to this complex case.”
The Court had cited the delay due to “overwhelming evidence”. Yet rumours continue to swirl of a Thai judiciary shaken by the great reach of international, high-profile interest; by the breadth of consensus, particularly from international media groups that Chiranuch be acquitted, and the CCA reformed; of the threats to online and press freedom that this case has, and will yet, come to represent. Amidst the speculation it yet seems clear that both a politically fractious, ever-divided Thailand and a region slowly coming to grips with global online norms and practice are heavily invested in the outcome.
In either case, Chiranuch herself seems glad that we may soon know what happens next. In a public letter published on Prachatai, she thanked her proponents for their continued support and quoted from that which gave her continued strength. “Sweeping away the darkness,” she wrote, the “distance looks immeasurable… Celebrate the destiny of freedom.”
A verdict is expected on May 30.
Lisa Gardner is a freelance journalist and writer. Follow her on Twitter @leesebkk