“Prachatai gives voice to democracy.”
Nine court days beginning on February 4th were spent hearing from minions of the forces of darkness assembled by the prosecution to testify against Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Remarkably in the 21st century, perhaps even in Thailand, 11 bureaucrats and police spoke up against free speech.
Chiranuch faces 20 years in prison for ten charges of lèse majesté under the Computer Crimes Act for comments users posted to a public Web forum police say were not removed promptly enough to suit the law.
Defence testimony started this morning, calling two witnesses highly respected in the community, both of whom co-founded the Foundation for Community Educational Media in 2004. FCEM is the civil society umbrella organisation governing Prachatai’s independent news website.
Jon Ungpakorn served as the first chair of FCEM. Jon is also a 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, considered Asia’s Nobel Prize.
Jon was also elected to the Thai Senate, serving from 2004 to 2006. He currently serves as chair of the working group on lèse majesté in the subcommittee on civil and political rights of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
Jon testified that he started Prachatai as an independent balance to Thai mainstream media. Prachatai’s four objectives are 1) To provide the Thai public with access to reliable news and information relevant to developing and strengthening the democratic functions of Thai civil society, 2) to focus news coverage on the problems, concerns, activities and accomplishments of local communities and civil society movements and organisations, 3) to strive for freedom and independence of Thai news media and 4) to promote active public participation in Thai news media.
Witness testimony disclosed that mainstream media reported on elite political leaders but Prachatai reported on issues affecting the poor, the marginalised and underprivileged. Jon became acquainted with Chiranuch during their collaboration in campaigns to support people with HIV/AIDS during 1991 and 1992. She became his natural choice for news director of Prachatai as an honest journalist with integrity.
However, the witness testified, Prachatai only became a government target after the military’s coup d’etat in 2006. Thais felt free to express themselves against the coup on Prachatai’s webboard but these views were never reported by traditional media outlets.
Prachatai’s support for freedom of expression and providing a free space for public opinion, exchange of ideas and discussion led to 10,000 new members per day at peak. News articles were scrutinised by Prachatai’s editors for content but the enormous flow of commentary on Prachatai’s webboard overwhelmed its meagre staff.
Prachatai users were validated by email address and were then permitted to initiate new topics and comment freely. Prachatai created a complaint reporting system by which a user could temporarily remove any post they found inappropriate for assessment by Prachatai monitors which could result in permanent deletion. Rude and insulting language were vigorously prohibited. Users posting such content were warned and then banned from posting if they persisted.
However, Prachatai was forced to become more stringent in its monitoring due to increased commentary about Thailand’s monarchy. Ten staff and volunteers moderated tens of thousands of postings during this period making timely takedowns impossible.
Prachatai cooperated with requests from Thailand’s ICT ministry to remove content when brought to their attention and recorded IP addresses of offensive content to identify posters.
However, Prachatai’s board and staff decided never to censor any comment in advance as this ran counter to the news portal’s support for freedom of expression. Although Jon was interviewed by the police over alleged lèse majesté comments, he was not informed that they were building evidence for prosecution of anyone at Prachatai.
Jon testified that most comments to Prachatai are social rather than political in nature, relating to the role of civil society on a broad range of grassroots issues. “Prachatai gives voice to democracy,” its founder stated.
On cross-examination by the prosecutor, Jon testified that it was certainly Prachatai’s responsibility to remove content which may be lèse majesté. However, the witness stated he wasn’t exactly sure what the prosecution meant by “risky” content.
Jon said one of the comments with which Chiranuch has been charged was overlooked for 20 days because it was posted to a forum which was largely inactive and that MICT did not bring it to the webmaster’s attention.
Jon also responded that assessing the legality of each comment is made more difficult by the fact that the monarchy may be referred to indirectly.
Although this backstory was not mentioned in court, Jon Ungpakorn knows from personal experience the true value of freedom of expression. His father, Dr. Puey Ungpakorn, was hounded into exile in 1976 and his younger brother, Ajarn Giles Ji Ungpakorn, was forced into exile in 2009, both for issues involving Thailand’s monarchy.
Ajarn Jon himself faces charges along with 50 others for challenging the military-appointed assembly in 2007 over the passage of laws supporting the military and violating human rights such as the Computer Crimes Act.
Following morning testimony by defence witness Jon Ungpakorn, Judge Kampot discussed disallowing the second defence witness. The judge finally agreed to the afternoon’s witness as long as there was no further repetition of Prachatai’s goals and objectives but was confined to its rules and enforcement.
Following midday break, Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara took the stand for the defence. Niran co-founded Prachatai and its support foundation with Jon Ungpakorn in 2004 and also served as elected fellow senator from Ubon Ratchathani province from 2004 to 2006.
He worked with Senator Jon in a Senate committee on social development, human security and media reform. Dr. Niran investigated the role of media and its Constitutional protections.
Dr. Niran is currently one of seven commissioners forming the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand until 2015. He chairs the NHRC subcommittee on civil and political rights. Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) petitioned the National Human Rights Commission in March 2011 over Thai government’s Internet censorship.
Dr. Niran’s research disclosed that Thai media is heavily manipulated by political power which led him to create Prachatai as an independent media choice. Traditional media treats news as a one-way, top-down effort and Prachatai tried to create a public conversation on the news Thai citizens through its webboard.
Although Dr. Niran testified that freedom of expression has legal limits, he said Prachatai remained one of the only outlets for public expression following the military coup. He stated Prachatai always cooperated with MICT in removing offensive content.
Dr. Niran also testified for the defence in the trial of a Prachatai poster known as ‘Bento’, the only one to be prosecuted although police have identified the posters of the remaining nine comments with which Chiranuch is charged. Noppawan […] was acquitted of lèse majesté.
The witness noted that ‘Bento’’s name had simply been replaced with Chiranuch’s in prosecution charge documents. He noted drily that the message not deleted by Prachatai’s webmaster stayed up for 20 days, unnoticed not only by MICT censors but by other users of Prachatai’s forum.
Ajarn Niran noted that Prachatai exists because freedom of expression in Thailand simply does not meet modern international standards for human rights. He stated, “Prachatai plays an important role in the democratisation of Thai society.”
The witness stated that most petitioners to the National Human Rights Commission are victims of political persecution because there are no clear guidelines from government on where to draw the line on illegality in discussions of the monarchy.
The prosecution declined to cross-examine human rights commissioner Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara. Perhaps the Crown did not feel up to a challenge of this crusader. Judge Kampot, however, acknowledged that, due to the position of the witness, he should feel free to correct any misapprehension the court has drawn from the testimony, a privilege not offered so far to any other witness.
Testimony resumes tomorrow with Chiranuch Premchaiporn taking the stand in her own defence.
Chiranuch’s trial resumes Wednesday, September 21 at Bangkok’s Criminal Court (San Aya) on Ratchadapisek Road near Lat Phrao MTR station, Exit 4. The trial is being heard in courtroom 910 but the case docket number is 1167/2553 in case the courtroom venue changes.
Chirach’s trial is scheduled to resume October 11, 12, 13, and 14 with further defence witnesses including overseas experts.