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Thai speech advocates question use of Computer Crimes Act vs. two accused of stock manipulation

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Speech and Internet advocates in Thailand are questioning why the Thai police invoked the Computer Crimes Act in going after two Thais accused of spreading rumours about the King's health, media reports in Bangkok say.

Sarinee Achavanuntakul, a committee member of the Thai Netizen Network (TNN), said invoking the law violates the freedom of speech of Thiranan Vipuchanan, 43, a former executive director of UBS Securities (Thailand), and Katha Pajajiriyapong, 37, of KT Zmico Securities. Both citizens were arrested on 1 November 2009. They were accused of violating Article 14 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been in Bangkok's Sririraj Hospital since mid-September for treatment of inflammation of the lungs. Rumours that the King's health was deteriorating spread in mid-October, resulting in a decline in stock prices on 14 October. Though he remains in hospital, the King has since made two public appearances over the past two weeks to dispel any notions of deteriorating health. The Thai government has stressed that the King is recovering from his ailment, and that the prognosis is good.

Government officials, however, have in the meantime vowed to track and crack down on the sources of rumours surrounding the King's condition. Thiranan and Katha were arrested in the context of that directive, and it was suggested they may have helped to spread the rumours to manipulate the stock market and profit from the reaction of traders.

The Bangkok-based daily, "The Nation", said Thiranan - under the username "bbb" - posted her translation of a Bloomberg agency article on the rumour, and the consequent instability at the Thai bourses on . The other suspect, Katha, posted his information on another online forum, . The said postings allegedly helped the market to plunge 7% during trading on 14 and 15 October. Internet and media advocate Sarinee said that charging the two for posting a mere translation of a Bloomberg article is "unreasonable".

"If someone is just copying news from reliable sources which adhere to professional standards - for example, identifying rumours as such, and not claiming them to be truth - then it is really up to the readers themselves to consider the news carefully," Sarinee said. "The Nation" quoted Prachathai's webmaster, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, as noting that the two suspects have been long-time members of the web board where they posted the news, thus contradicting the police theory that the suspects were out to reap a windfall in the stock market.

In any case, Sarinee said that even if the police could prove that the suspects were really out to manipulate the market, the authorities should have invoked the Securities Act, rather than the controversial Computer Crimes Act which critics contend has overly broad provisions that could have a chilling effect on online speech. The Computer Crimes Act forbids the spreading of false computer data that could threaten national security or cause public panic. Free expression advocates have assailed such provisions since the law's adoption in 2007, saying the vague wording coupled with harsh penalties lends the Act to abuse and leads to the vulnerability of free speech online.

The Computer Crimes Act prescribes penalties of up to THB100,000 (approx. US$3,000) and up to five years' imprisonment.

Chiranuch noted that the arrests "create a severe climate of fear" among online users.

While Thiranan and Katha have been released after each posting a THB100,000 bail, the "Bangkok Post" quoted police Col. Pisit Pao-in, deputy chief of the Royal Thai Police's Hi-Tech Crime Center, as saying that they are seeking a warrant for the arrest of a third suspect over similar charges of spreading false online rumours about the King's health.

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