Facing the threat of a 70-year prison sentence for critical remarks about the Thai monarchy posted on her website, Chiranuch Premchaiporn’s case has turned an international spotlight on Thailand’s draconian computer crime and press freedom laws.
“They try to silence and control the people,” says Premchaiporn, 43, webmaster and director of Thailand’s Prachatai online newspaper. Thousands of comments stream into her website daily, but government critics insist she should have immediately deleted 10 remarks posted by Prachatai readers that criticized the Thai monarchy – a criminal offense.
Premchaiporn – one of IWMF’s 2011 Courage in Journalism Award winners — is free on bail and her trial, which began in February 2011, will resume in September. Prachatai suspended its online forums in July 2010. She is suing the Thai government for its illegitimate attempts to block Prachatai and has switched to server and web hosting services outside the country.
As the Thai government moved to silence the opposition, Premchaiporn’s website became a target for censorship in March 2009. Police raided her office, interrogating her for five hours and seizing her computer equipment.
“It was total chaos. After they searched the office they showed me an arrest warrant. They treated me like I was a criminal. I called my lawyer, and friends started coming to my office to support me and tweet about the arrest. There must have been 50 friends and journalists crowding the office,” she said.
“Everyone followed me to the police department’s crown suppression division. They questioned me for five hours. I was a little bit afraid when they took my fingerprints like I was a criminal,” said Premchaiporn, who was released on bail. ”I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but they were trying to silence the Internet platform and I am a target.”
A year after the bloody military crackdown of a Red Shirt protest that ended in 92 deaths, the latest efforts to restrict Internet freedom have incensed critics of the government who have increasingly used social media to voice their anger.
Despite increasing government scrutiny, Premchaiporn — who goes by the nickname “Jiew” — remains determined to speak out about Internet freedom. Traveling back to Bangkok from an international conference in September 2010, she was pulled aside by Thai immigration officers and arrested. “I couldn’t believe it. I kept asking, ‘What’s the charge?’” she said. “It was the same thing all over again. I found out people had been posting ‘unlawful’ comments on the website.” Immigration police drove her five hours away to a remote police station in Khon Kaen, where she was questioned for hours and finally released.
As her case moves through Thailand’s court system, Premchaiporn continues managing her website’s 15-person staff. The popular Prachatai website, founded in 2004, has attracted worldwide support from Internet freedom organizations angered at Thailand’s restrictive, vague computer crimes act.“The media in Thailand is afraid to cover issues relating to the royal family,” Premchaiporn said. “Once it was announced that I received the Courage in Journalism Award, they covered my case and interviewed me. But there is fear.”
Although the Thai government has tightly controlled the press for the past 70 years, the latest efforts to crack down on the Internet have raised an international outcry. “In Thailand’s now highly charged political environment, Prachatai has been singled out for government harassment,” said Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior southeast Asia representative. “In recent years, authorities have shuttered tens of thousands of websites and pages, including Prachatai, for broadly defined reasons of national security. In 2007, Thailand implemented some of the most draconian legislation in the world aimed at curbing Internet freedoms.”
After the arrests, Premchaiporn has distanced herself from her parents and eight siblings to protect them. “My family isn’t involved in any political activities,” she said. “One of my sisters wanted me to resign, but I didn’t do anything wrong. I love my job as a journalist. It’s important to inform people.”
In Thailand only about 27 percent of the people have Internet access, but officials fear “the power of the new media. When people are upset with the government, they turn to other sources of information. It’s hard for the government to control,” Premchaiporn said.
“The government singled me out to make an example,” said Prempchaiporn, who says her phone is being tapped. “They should know that there are other ways around this – we will continue writing.”
Chiranuch Premchaiporn is the first winner of the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award from Thailand.