THAILAND: Blogger’s Conviction Shocks Internet Freedom Activists

(IPS) – Suwicha Thakhor's nightmare in a Thai jail is set to continue after a court delivered a harsh verdict this week that contained a unequivocal message – the Internet in this country is being policed with the aim of limiting free expression.

On Apr. 3, the criminal court sentenced the 34-year-old father of three children to 10 years in jail for posting an image on the Internet that was deemed to have insulted the Thai royal family. Suwicha's sentence – initially for the maximum of 20 years but reduced to half – has pushed this South-east Asian nation to join the ranks of countries where bloggers can be imprisoned for expressing their views, such as Thailand's western neighbour, military-ruled Burma.

The verdict also saw the three judges who presided over this groundbreaking case take measures that went against the grain of an open trial, which is often the case in other criminal cases. Reporters present in the wooden panelled chamber were ordered not to take notes of the proceedings. The court also did not say how the defamatory photos were doctored.

The crimes Suwicha had committed included violating the 2007 computer crime law, which came into force when Thailand was under the grip of a junta that staged a coup in September 2006, the country's 18th putsch. This law, criticised for being a crackdown on the freedoms of the country's cyber community, threatens violators with maximum five-year jail term.

He was also tried for breaking the draconian lèse majesté law, which has been in the penal code for the past 100 years to prosecute anyone who expresses a view that tarnishes the image of the revered royal family. Violators face a maximum of 15 years in jail.

''This is the longest sentence in recent times for a lèse majesté-related offence,'' says David Streckfuss, a U.S. academic who has written extensively on the Thai law aimed at insulating the monarchy from criticism.

''This is the first case of an Internet user convicted under the computer crime act related to national security or lèse majesté,'' adds Supinya Klangnarong, a media rights campaigner who head the Thai Netizens Network, a group lobbying for the rights of Internet users. ''The sentence came as a shock. It means that this could happen to any Internet user in Thailand.''

''Panic, fear, frustration and anxiety will grow among the Thai Internet community,'' she warned during an interview. ''It seems like the computer crime act has become a tool to go after people. We have not seen nor are aware of what he did in cyberspace.''

Suwicha's lawyer concurs. ''This case sends out a message to the Internet community that they have to be very careful, because they can be easily targeted, easily prosecuted,'' Teerapan Pankeeree told IPS outside the courtroom. ''Internet isn't a free space, a liberal space anymore.'' There are some 14 million Internet users in this country of close to 66 million people.

Suwicha's nightmare began on Jan. 14, when the oil engineer was arrested and charged by the police for posting a video clip on the YouTube website that was considered to be defaming the royal family. He had done so using a pseudonym.

The police had tracked his web postings and read his e-mails, according to his wife, Thitima Thakhor. ''He was arrested after he had dropped his children at school.''

During the time Suwicha spent in jail, the authorities have also targeted others for expressing their views on the Internet. Such attempts to limit free speech were for the same reason as Suwicha's – acts of lèse majesté.

Among the victims was Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of 'Prachatai', a popular alternative news website that posts political and critical content rarely mentioned in the local media. She was charged for violating article 15 of the computer crime law, since she had left a comment on her website for 20 days in October last year.

The crackdown on bloggers and Internet users in Thailand is part of a trend that has been gathering pace as the country's conservative political establishment seeks to maintain an image of the royal family as one that is free of any blemishes.

The country's information and communications ministry has confirmed that 2,300 websites have been blocked for comments that insult the monarchy and 400 more are on a possible ban list.

The justice ministry has revealed that over 10,000 websites are being monitored for similar comments that defame the monarchy. The authorities have also reportedly invested 1.28 million U.S. dollars to establish an Internet firewall to block websites that have anti-monarchy remarks.

The country's 2007 constitution, which was drafted by a committee chosen by the junta that was in power, has language to ensure that the monarchy is protected. It states: ''The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.''

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81, is revered by the country and has been on the throne for more than 60 years.

Suwicha pleaded guilty to uploading information on the Internet that violated such constitutional language. He had said so soon after the police had arrested him in his home in a province in north-eastern Thailand.

But little could prepare him for the sentence that he received. He openly wept after the judgement was delivered and he was led to a large cell on the ground floor of the criminal court.

''I need help. This is very painful, too much,'' he cried as he held on to the iron bars of the cell. ''This has to stop.''