In recent days police in Thailand arrested and charged another person over causing a decline in the stock market by spreading rumours through the Internet about the king’s health.
According to news reports, Tassaporn Ratawongsa, 42, a radiologist at the Thonburi Hospital was arrested on 18 November 2009 and charged under section 14 of the Computer Crime Act BE 2550 (2007) with distributing “false computer data in a manner that is likely to damage the country’s security or cause a public panic”. She is the fourth person to have been charged in this manner over rumours in October about the health of the king that caused the stock market to drop dramatically. The other three are Katha Pajariyapong, 37, and Thiranant Vipuchant, 43, both arrested on November 1; and, Somjet Itthiworakul, 38, arrested on November 3.
The four join the director of online independent news site Prachatai, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who is facing a raft of charges over comments that readers posted to the site, not anything that she herself wrote or did, by virtue of section 15 of the same law that, “Any service provider intentionally supporting or consenting to an offence under Section 14 within a computer system under their control shall be subject to the same penalty as that imposed upon a person committing an offence under Section 14.”
All of these accused face imprisonment of up to five years for their alleged offences. Another Internet user from Thailand who made the mistake of thinking that he had relative freedom to do as he pleased in cyberspace who is already serving his term is Suwicha Takor, who earlier in the year was given a 10-year sentence, reduced from 20 because of his guilty plea, for posting pictures deemed offensive to the monarchy.
It is in Suwicha’s case that the intersection between what is superficially going on in these other cases and what is actually going on becomes obvious. Suwicha was sentenced to 20 years because he was convicted not only of so-called computer crimes but also of lese-majesty.
In fact, these other persons could also have been charged with lese-majesty under the Penal Code, but instead the authorities have chosen to target them only with the use of the new computer law.
Is the Computer Crime Act being used as a de facto lese-majesty law? Whether or not people in the administration have this as a policy, these cases suggest it is headed that way.
Throughout 2009 Thailand has attracted a huge amount of negative publicity over the cases against persons critical of its royal family, or persons claiming to act on the royals’ behalf. Attempts to stifle this negative publicity have only backfired, generating even greater amounts of bad press and bad feelings. The extent of this sensitivity was impressed upon the Asian Human Rights Commission in May when the justice minister, Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, in a letter responding to interventions in the case of Suwicha denied that Thailand even has a lese-majesty law:
“Offences against the King, the Queen, the Heir-Apparent or the Regent are considered offences relating to the security of the Kingdom, not ‘lese-majesty’… I am certain that each state as well as Thailand has its own way of interpreting what constitutes offences relating to national security. Therefore, whoever violates the law of the Kingdom will be fairly charged and prosecuted according to the law of the Kingdom.”
The awkwardness of the minister’s proposition, which is anyhow incorrect–the Oxford dictionary defines “lese-majesty” as the insulting of a sovereign, which is precisely one of the criteria for an offence against the king under section 112 of the Penal Code–speaks to the difficulties that the government of Thailand has been having with lese-majesty and suggests why it may be looking for other analogous categories of crimes.
The Computer Crime Act is an excellent substitute. The so-called law was passed in the final hours of the military-appointed proxy legislature following the 2006 coup, and as the AHRC made clear from the start, was designed as a tool to suppress dissent, not responsibly deal with Internet crime in Thailand. Its ambiguous provisions, notably the section under which all these persons have been charged, allow for the prosecution of any type of thought crime on the disingenuous pretext that the crime is one of technology rather than one of expression or of ideas. Therefore, the state can claim that it is bringing people to court for one type of crime, while sending a clear message to a society that the real offence is altogether different.
With fewer journalists and editors in Thailand willing or wanting to take up many issues of importance to the public, it is unsurprising that more and more people are turning to the Internet to communicate. The substituting of lese-majesty with computer crime offences may seem to the authorities to be superficially easy but it will not do anything to reduce the global interest in the role of Thailand’s monarchy and future prospects for its lost democracy. On the contrary, by prosecuting these persons the government has only shifted from one type of high-profile crime to another. Internet offences are a subject of interest to hundreds of millions of web users all around the world, and it would be foolish of the authorities to think that by prosecuting these persons under the Computer Crime Act they will do anything to lessen the attention paid to the hand that the protectors of the monarchy in Thailand have in all of this. For its own good and the good of its kingdom, the government of Thailand would be smart to find a way to drop these cases as quickly and quietly as possible.