A prominent Thai activist and magazine editor was sentenced to a decade in prison Wednesday for defaming Thailand’s monarchy, a verdict rights groups condemned as the latest affront to freedom of expression in the Southeast Asian country.
Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was convicted of publishing two articles in an anti-establishment magazine that made negative references to the crown.
The verdict came despite repeated calls by rights groups to free Somyot, who has been jailed since 2011. It also underscored the harsh nature of Thailand’s lese majeste laws, which critics say have frequently been used by politicians to silence rivals.
The articles in question were published under a pseudonym in Somyot’s now-defunct Voice of Taksin magazine, which he launched in 2009 to compile political news and anti-establishment articles from writers and contributors.
Judges found both pieces contained content that defamed the royal family and argued that Somyot, as a veteran editor, knew that and chose to print them anyway. The court announced two five-year jail terms — one for each story.
“(Somyot) should have better judgment than ordinary journalists. He must have understood that the articles contained lese majeste content, but chose to publish them anyway,” one of judges said in the sentence.
Somyot said he would appeal the verdict but would not seek a royal pardon [BP: Interesting he won’t seek a pardon…].
The European Union also weighed in on the verdict, saying it “seriously undermines the right to freedom of expression and press freedom” and “affects Thailand’s image as a free and democratic society.”
“The courts seem to have adopted the role of chief protector of the monarchy at the expense of free expression rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The court’s ruling appears to be more about Somyot’s strong support for amending the lese majeste law than about any harm incurred by the monarchy.”
Somyot was first arrested during the street protests by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) “Red Shirts” against the government of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. On April 26, 2010, the government’s Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) put Somyot and his magazine on a chart containing names of individuals and groups whom it accused of being “anti-monarchy.” The CRES never offered any credible evidence to substantiate this allegation. On May 24, 2010, Somyot was arrested by the CRES, which detained him without charge for 19 days in an army camp under state of emergency rules then in effect. He was released on June 13, 2010. Somyot then changed the name of his magazine from Voice of Taksin to Red Power. The Abhisit government forced the shutdown of Red Power in September 2010.
Police arrested Somyot again on April 30, 2011, and charged him under article 112 of Thailand’s penal code, which states that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” The two articles for which Somyot was charged were written by Jit Pollachan, the pseudonym of Jakrapob Penkair, the exiled former spokesman of Thaksin. Jakrapob, now living in Cambodia, has never been charged with any crime for what he wrote.
Somyot was arrested five days after launching a campaign to collect 10,000 signatures calling for the amendment of article 112. On May 29, 2012, the Camping Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 submitted a proposed amendment along with 30,383 signatures to the parliament. However, in November 2012, Parliament Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranond dismissed the proposed amendment, saying that the constitution prohibits any law reform related to the institution of the monarchy.
While Thailand’s Printing Act protects editors from being held accountable for the content of others, the Constitutional Court ruled on October 10, 2012, that the restrictions on freedom of expression and the criminal penalties for lese majeste offenses were constitutional, because breaches of lese majeste are considered threats to national security.
BP: There is a pattern of behavior of targeting Somyot…
“The articles accused the king of having power over all past governments and being behind most crackdowns against demonstrators,” Bangkok’s Criminal Court said in a statement. “The information in those articles was incorrect. And as the editor of the publication, the defendant should take extreme caution in publishing.”
The editor, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, is the third person convicted in the last month for insulting the royal family as calls grow within Thailand to change laws used to shield the monarchy from criticism. He was arrested in April 2011, five days after helping start a campaign to change the lese-majeste law.
Thomas Fuller in NYT:
Similar to a decision last week, where an anti-government protester was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting the king, the articles never mentioned the king’s name.
The first article is a jumbled tale about a family that plots to kill millions of people to maintain its power and quash democracy. The court ruled on Wednesday that the writer was describing the Chakri dynasty of Thailand’s current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The second article is a fictional tale about a ghost who haunts Thailand and plots massacres. The court ruled that the author was comparing the ghost to King Bhumibol.
“There is no content identifying an individual,” the court said. “But the writing conveyed connection to historical events.”
The articles criticized the role of a fictional character meant to represent the king, public prosecutors said in a July 2011 report. Discussions about the role of the monarchy are forbidden.
“The accused is a journalist who had a duty to check the facts in these articles before publishing them. He knew the content defamed the monarchy but allowed their publication anyway,” a judge said in passing sentence.
“The lese-majeste law works against the long-term interests of the Thai monarchy,” said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based independent scholar and lese-majeste expert. “To a society that is becoming ever more politically conscious, the holding and trying of defendants seems arbitrary, petty and a clear violation of human rights.”
Mr. Somyot has been refused bail 12 times and denies breaking any laws. His lawyer, Karom Polpornklang, said his client would again seek bail while he appeals Wednesday’s ruling. He was also sentenced to an additional year in prison on an unrelated defamation charge.
Legal experts say lese majeste cases are highly charged-affairs in Thailand and few defendants are acquitted, largely because of the strong political overtones which frequently accompany prosecutions. Mr. Somyot’s arrest in 2011, for instance, came after a period of extreme turmoil in Thailand. The previous year, tens of thousands of “red shirt” protesters besieged a large swath of central Bangkok in a bid to force the collapse of the then government and pave the way for the return of Mr. Thaksin, a populist leader whose election successes had challenged the power of this Southeast Asian nation’s traditional bureaucratic and military elites.
Amnesty International, which considers Somyot to be a “prisoner of conscience”, described the Bangkok Criminal Court ruling as “a serious setback for freedom of expression in Thailand”.
At a press conference last year, Somyot’s wife Sukanya said the legislation was futile. “You can physically put them in prison, but you cannot jail their thoughts,” she said.
David Streckfuss is a Thailand-based academic and author who has written extensively on Lese Majeste. He says most of the recent prosecutions are not surprising as they were initiated during the previous government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, a staunch monarchist.
“What is surprising is, as you say, the Pheu Thai government came in promising to at least to look into the law and to have academics and legal experts look at it. Since that time, I think probably for what they perceive as their own political survival, they’ve retreated from doing anything with the law,” said Streckfuss.
Nonetheless, Streckfuss says, there do appear to be significantly fewer new cases of Lese Majeste, so Thailand could, in the future, see less prosecutions and convictions.
However, persistent fears that the army might try and stage another coup or that so-called Yellow Shirt opponents might take over the streets in mass protests, appears to have persuaded Ms Yingluck that reforming the law is not a priority for her. Last year, a government advisor told The Independent that they had decided to leave the issue alone.
“Unfortunately, the failure of this government to review the lese majeste law is entirely predictable,’ said Duncan Duncan McCargo, an expert on South East Asian politics at Leeds University. “Yingluck Shinawatra is performing a delicate balancing act to preserve the political deal which keeps her in office – and doing so involves keeping the country’s conservative institutions, including the palace, the judiciary and the military onside.”
BP: Well, despite the fewer cases and last year being a relatively “good” year in regards to the number of people receiving custodial sentences for lese majeste offences, this is the 3rd conviction in the last month (per Bloomberg). Lese majeste is back on the agenda for now (at least). This is a lese majeste conviction for an insult or defamatory statement and not a threat (contrast with Uncle SMS case).
There have been changing attitudes towards lese majeste over the past five years. However, as seen with another delay to constitutional reform, the government is sidelining all issues that could lead to confrontation. The confrontation on lese majeste reform you ask? At the end of 2001, Panitan Wattanayagorn, former secretary-general to ex-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, stated “The army chief [Prayuth Chan-ocha] has made things clear concerning lese majeste [that the army will fight to the end]”. Due to this fear of confrontation, as also noted by Streckfuss and McCargo above, BP sees little hope of lese majeste reform for now (Thaksin has thrown the reform ball to the Privy Council).
However, as noted in March last year:
Fortunately, for the government, the NHRC later said they will need the rest of the year to review the issue so the government has some leeway. However, once the report comes out, BP is very skeptical there will be any reform although the pressure for reform would start building unless there is a major change in the enforcement of the law. BP doesn’t imagine street protests, but within a group of progressive voters (i.e Matichon readers), they will be upset. While we are talking about small numbers, they will matter during an election. They are unlikely to vote Democrat, but they may vote for someone else or not vote. This is a problem for the future for Puea Thai, but it will become a problem.
BP: So when will this NHRC report come out? (a Google search sheds no light). The government can’t sideline the lese majeste issue forever. We are still probably a few years away from where the “do nothing” approach by the government on lese majeste becomes a political problem (i.e. will cost it votes), but it will eventually become one. There are other things the government can do aside from amending lese majeste. As noted in May 2012:
Nevertheless, his death places the spotlight clearly on lese majeste law and what the government will do. The government can’t just release those convicted from jail tomorrow, but it can provide them with better treatment – as of last report they hadn’t been moved to the new facility* – and make more progress on limiting the number of prosecutions – still no word on what the committee is doing. Economic concerns, particularly over the cost of living, is the most pressing issue facing the government, but can’t ignore other issues including lese majeste.
BP: The committee seems have had some influence, as noted by Streckfuss on the drop in the number of prosecutions, but what is the government doing to ensure better conditions for the lese majeste prisoners?
*Have searched and tried to find if the lese majeste prisoners have been moved to Laksi but can find nothing to suggest they have been.
btw, if time permits will also blog on Thai media stories on Somyot’s conviction…
*Made some slight changes to a few sentences within a few minutes of publishing to correct some errors and so sentences read more smoothly.