THE website prachatai.com’s popularity shot up after the September 2006 coup d’etat that removed then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who continues to be the most divisive figure in Thailand today. But it was on March 6 last year that website director Ms. Chiranuch Premchaiporn shot into the news herself when Crime Suppression police raided Prachatai’s office and charged her with allowing comments on the webboard with alleged lèse majesté content. Thailand has strict laws on lese majeste – insulting the monarchy.
What made the case doubly interesting was that the raid came just hours after prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was assuring an audience comprising many media people from across the region, of his government’s respect for media freedom.
International watchdog organisations released statements condemning the raid. The Hongkong-based independent Asian Human Rights Commission called the raid "part of the systematic ultraconservative agenda since the 2006 army coup to intimidate and silence critics, human rights defenders and social activists in Thailand."
Subsequently a total of 10 charges were filed against Ms Chiranuch. Each charge carries a potential five year jail sentence. The charges caused a stir in the online media community – a new frontline of sorts in Thailand’s now long-running political conflict. It was also widely reported in the national and international press. The case is for obvious reasons, of special interest to the media community.
Earlier this year, at the annual Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) dinner, with Ms Chiranuch present in the audience, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said this was one case that he viewed with "regret."
Earlier this afternoon I got a call from a friend who told me Ms Chiranuch was at the criminal court, and had been placed in a holding cell. I was supposed to have a day off, but thought I should go down to have a look.
I found Ms Chiranuch in a large holding cell for women – with another dozen or so women. The cell is in the basement; upstairs in the courtroom her lawyers were trying to arrange bail. There was a gaggle of colleagues from Prachatai.com there to offer moral support.
Prachatai.com editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn in the holding cell at the Criminal Court on Wednesday afternoon : a case closely watched.
PHOTO: Nick Nostitz
I called out to her from the outer wire mesh. She seemed cheerful, but I could imagine it was not exactly a normal day for her. Her mobile phone had been taken from her of course. But she was free to speak to visitors from about 20 feet away – the distance between the outer wire mesh and the barred cell.
In the end, bail was settled at 300,000 Baht. After spending 5 hours at the court, of which 3.5 hours were in the cell, she was released, to her relief and that of her colleagues and friends.
We lined up outside to welcome her after bail had been posted and she was fingerprinted and then signed out. Later on Twitter she thanked others for their messages of support and said it had been a ‘"new and strange experience."
Whatever the prime minister may say, the case is clearly grinding through the system, and will be a test case for Thailand’s relatively new Computer Crimes Act which arms authorities with wide powers. It will thus be very closely watched.