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Lese-majeste and freedom of expression inThailand
It is difficult to imagine what could be a greater insult to the Thai monarchy than the current operation by over-zealous officials of the country's Lese-Majeste law (article 112 of Thailand's criminal code). The law which is intended to protect the image of the royal family has increasingly been used in politically motivated cases with an overly broad interpretation and excessive penalties since the coup in 2006.
The verdict in the case against human rights defender Ms Chiranuch Premchaiporn is expected at the end of May. She is Executive Director of Prachatai.com, an alternative news website which reports on human rights and social movements in Thailand and Southeast Asia. She has been charged under the Computer Crime Act for her role as webmaster of the Prachatai web forum, which was set up to encourage open discussions on political and social issues. It is alleged she was too slow to remove offensive comments to posts on the website. Her trial took place in February 2011, it was postponed to September 2011 and concluded in February 2012. If found guilty of this charge, she could face the maximum sentence of twenty years in prison.
The United Kingdom Government recently stated: “We are closely following the development of freedom of expression in Thailand and are concerned by the significant increase of lese-majeste cases in the country and the application of the laws and length of sentences in recent cases."
In discussions in Bangkok with Thai human rights defenders it was clear that in spite of the excessive manner in which the law has been applied it is very difficult to have an open public discussion of the need for reform. Nevertheless there was an interesting discussion of some of the issues during an event to mark the 7th anniversary of Prachatai.
Currently anyone can bring a complaint of lese-majeste and the police are obliged to investigate, and this has resulted in politically motivated cases, but does not explain the interpretation of the law by the courts or the very long sentences handed down. Ampon Tangnoppakul who was in his 60s and was known as “Uncle SMS” died in prison in early May after being sentenced to 20 years in prison last November for allegedly sending text messages offensive to the monarchy.
If the objective is to maintain a separation between the monarchy and political discourse then propagating such obvious injustices is clearly counter-productive. Dismissing the case against Chiranuch Premchaiporn would be a good start but there is an urgent need to reform law and practice to guarantee freedom of expression.