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SEAPA expresses concern over government officials' comments on lese majeste cases

(SEAPA/IFEX) - 31 August 2011 - On 26 August, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung declared that the new government will effectively disregard the need to restore freedom of speech and the press, which has been under attack since the start of the political crisis in 2006.

Speaking at the parliament, Chalerm announced that one of the top priorities of the newly formed government will be to crack down on websites with lese majeste content and that it will set up a "war room" for the purpose. The announcement of said "war room" seems to be a follow up to his statement two days earlier, made in response to opposition MP Supachai Jaisamut, that "no one in the ruling party supports amending lese majeste".

Besides Chalerm, another government minister who made a similarly alarming point is the Minister of Information and Communication Technology (MICT), Anudit Nakorntap. The minister said on 13 August that his ministry will be even more stringent in enforcing lese majeste and the Computer Crimes Act (CCA). Anudit and Chalerm's statements immediately bring to mind the internet censorship of the last government under Abhisit Vejjajiva, which organized trainings for cyber vigilantes of perceived lese majeste offences.

A recent victim of the vigilantes' witch-hunt is university graduate Norawase Yospiyasathien. His alleged crime was re-posting text from a socio-political discussion web board, formerly known as Fa Diew Kan (Same Sky), to his Windows Live Page. Fellow students tipped off the university's rector, who then filed a case leading to Norawase's arrest under lese majeste and CCA regulations and his subsequent release on bail in early August.

Developments in two other cases in the period between the Puea Thai party's electoral victory in July and Chalerm's latest announcement give no reasons for optimism.

A Thai-born but naturalized American citizen, Joe Gordon, was charged on 18 August for translating part of a banned biography of the King by an American journalist and writing a defamatory article. Gordon denies the charges.

Two days later, Redshirt magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk was denied bail along with a Redshirt activist, Surachai Danwattananusorm. Somyot has been detained since 30 April and was charged on 25 July for publishing two offending articles penned by an anonymous person. Surachai on the other hand has been detained since 22 February and was charged for making speeches that contravened the lese majeste laws in December 2010.

Except for Surachai, the other three were accused on the basis of being intermediaries while the actual author of the offending "lese majeste" contents went unpunished. In September, freedom of expression advocates' attention will be focused on the trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, executive director of the Prachatai website, who faces a maximum of 15 years in jail for each of the 10 charges against her. She is being charged under the CCA in relation to comments posted on the Prachatai web message board. The trial will continue on 1 September after the originally scheduled session was postponed on 12 February.

The previous proceedings, which heard the testimonies of five witnesses (from the MICT, the police, a scientist, and a lawyer), have so far exposed glaring problems with the enforcement agencies, further demonstrating the arbitrary nature of laws on lese majeste.

As far as the authorities are concerned, the interpretation of who is an offender could include those who allude to or make references to the monarchy, make references to a convicted lese majeste offender, or recall certain factual accounts concerning the monarchy. The overbearing effect of the law was manifested in the courtroom itself, where the judge, prosecutors and witness all deliberately lowered their voices to a murmur when the offending items were read out in court and some of the evidence was not printed out.

The media reported that news on the arrest of Norawase was widely posted on social media by a vigilante group known as Social Sanction (SS). The actual number of these groups is not be known, but their targets have faced legal persecution or been subjected to hate speech and intimidation tactics.

The ill-defined law, allowing anyone to file an accusation, and the government's tacit approval of it, are all that is needed by the vigilantes, putting at risk the work of media practitioners and online commentators, and the sharing of information online.

Irrespective of the decision on Chiranuch's upcoming trial, Thai writers, intellectuals and activists have spoken out for more discussion about the law and its reform. They have spoken out against the continuing regression of freedom of expression in Thailand, a country once seen as one of the more democratic countries in Southeast Asia until the current political crisis erupted. The Yingluck administration should not precipitate an even greater decline, especially since Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra recently committed to reforming legislation and the judiciary based on principles of the rule of law, and the application of the law with equality, fairness and transparency.

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