Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of Prachatai, an online newspaper in Thailand, was sentenced to one year in prison with a fine of 30,000 baht, which has been reduced to eight months with suspension and 20,000 baht fine after appeal to all the three courts of justice. She was charged under the 2007 Computer Crime Act for failing to remove content on Prachatai’s forum that was deemed to be lèse-majesté.
Global FoE could not identify official legal and government records on the case and information on the case was derived from secondary sources. Global FoE notes that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding legal matters will be updated as an official source becomes available.
The online news website, Prachatai, was founded by journalists, politicians, and free speech activists as an independent, nonprofit Internet newspaper. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of Prachatai and local webmaster, was charged under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act for failing to act quickly enough to remove an internet post insulting Thailand’s royal monarchy. The posts that were on Prachatai’s public forum were considered insulting to the monarchy, making it lèse-majesté content. At least one post was reported to remain online for 20 days; nine other comments were removed within 10 days. The government repeatedly shut down Prachatai, which continued to re-launch under new addresses. The public forum section of the website was eventually discontinued. The individual who allegedly posted the content was acquitted by the Court of First Instance on January 31, 2011, but was later sentenced to 5 years imprisonment by the Court of Appeal on October 2, 2013. However, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of First Instance and the case was dismissed on October 20, 2015.
The Computer Crimes Act was enacted to deter internet fraud, hacking, and other computer and internet-related crimes. Articles 14 and 15 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act punished “false data” that damages a third party, causes public panic, or undermines the country’s security and “any service provider intentionally supporting” the false data. Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code (lese majeste) states that anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent” will be punished with as many as 15 years in prison. There is no explicit definition of what constitutes an “insult” or “threat.
Chiranuch stated that Prachatai’s forum was a place where lèse-majesté content was easily found, and that the webmaster had been responsible for monitoring that content. Chiranuch denied the allegation and stated that the forum held co-responsibility. The forum initiated a protection measure and set up monitoring efforts to screen content that may be deemed offensive. The system allowed members of the forum to act as content moderators who had the power to remove content.
On May 30, 2012, the Court of First Instance sentenced Chiranuch to one year in prison with an additional fine of 30,000 baht, which was reduced to eight months and a 20,000 baht fine. According to the Court, the reason for the reduction was Chiranuch’s useful cooperation in the legal process. The jail sentence was suspended for a period of one year.
The Appeal Court affirmed the decision of the Court of First Instance on November 8, 2013. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Appeal Court and the Court of First Instance on December 23, 2015, upholding the sentence.
The Court of First Instance stated that Chiranuch had allowed the offensive comments to remain on the forum when she actually had enough time to remove them. The action was considered as neglectful and by implication consent in committing a computer crime. As the defendant’s claimed that Prachatai had introduced more ways to screen the contents, the court considered that the defendant had performed her duties but it was still insufficient. It further added that, even though the defendant claimed that she had freedom of expression, as administrator, it was her responsibility to monitor the content closely because the content could negatively affect the national security and rights and freedoms of others. Furthermore, even though Article 15 of the Computer Crime Act did give a specific timeframe regarding handling the illegal content, the Court found that a period of 10 days would be believable that the defendant was unaware of the offensive comments on the forum, but 20 days made it appear otherwise. Therefore, it was concluded that Chiranuch had allowed the crime to be committed.
Before issuing its oral decision, the Court of Appeal stated, “Monarchy is needed for Thai society. The current King has devoted himself for the country and is an ideal monarch. It’s the duty for all Thais to protect the King. Given that the the defendant was 41 years old and graduated from media [journalism] school, the defendant should have taken better precaution measure to prevent lese majeste.” The Court of Appeal proceeded to affirm the sentence, including imprisonment and fines, for violations of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.
The Supreme Court gave the following additional comments on its decision:
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
Premchaiporn’s conviction is a major setback for freedom of speech and expression in Thailand. First, it sets a precedent that a private third-party may be held liable for another individual’s online speech. Second, this conviction opens up the possibility that other media platforms (e.g. telephone companies, radio DJs, online video platforms) who have not previously been held responsible for an individual voicing his or her opinion may now be held liable for their user’s opinions and comments. Third, although her fine and sentence were reduced, the threat of both sanctions will have the effect of chilling speech.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeal and the Court of First Instance.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.