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A Dark day for Thai freedom of expression

Lawsuit against online news portal master will serve as a paradigm shift

Thailand's awkward grappling with the unique freedom on cyber space has been dealt another big setback. A country known for relative freedom of the press will once again become a focus of world attention, thanks to a group of people who want to exercise absolute control over the Internet.

There are a lot of people in Thailand who need to learn that the Internet is probably the most ubiquitous new media tool in the world today - and that any attempt at total control will be futile, yet deplorable all the same.

Online users the world over have benefited from an increased access to information both inside and outside their own countries, and this has outweighed arguably controversial exercise of rights of expression. This is why, internationally, any attempt to obstruct the free flow of information - even on sensitive issues - is an assault on the ramparts of fundamental freedom because it violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Of course, within the Thai context, this has never been an issue because the media seldom touches on the topic of the revered monarchy.

Back in 2005, His Majesty the King himself said that he, in the person of the monarch, was not, and should not be, above criticism. However, conservative bureaucrats - of which this country is not in short supply - and concerned authorities are not paying attention to His Majesty's words.

Like it or not, the prosecutors' decision to file a lawsuit against Chiranuch Premchaiporn, - webmaster of the independent Thai online news portal Prachatai - under the Computer Crimes Act will serve as a new paradigm shift in Thailand's long-standing tolerance of free expression. And it will instil fear in some quarters.

But whoever is responsible for creating such fear must think long and hard about the consequences.

If those backward-thinking individuals are singling out Chiranuch as a scapegoat, then the future of our freedom of expression will be rolled backed further.

Chiranuch was apprehended last March for allowing comments on Prachatai's online discussion board that allegedly fall into the category of lese majeste.

If convicted, she could be sentenced to a prison term of up to 50 years. Last April, Suvicha Thakor, a blogger, received a 20-year sentence under the same law. Since then, he has applied for royal clemency. Under this law, six other people were arrested but prosecutors have yet to arraign them.

In the past several years, Thai authorities have tried to block anti-monarchy web sites, and their action has backfired badly. In the early 2000's, there were over a dozen websites, of which very few Thais knew of their existence. Thanks to the handling of our esteemed authorities, many of these sites have become even more popular than they would have been if they were just left alone.

Furthermore, the numbers have increased many fold, thanks to the copycat syndrome among the online users. The more the officials try to block these websites the more they appear. The best way is to maintain the status quo before the Computer Crimes Act was passed.

One wonders if our authorities are on the hunt because they are afraid that some parties would have accused them of not doing enough to protect the revered institution. In the Thai context, to be at the end of such criticism amounts to receiving a political death sentence. But more often than not, few people question the agenda of those who are making the accusations.

The Thai public is not stupid, they know intimately the Thai monarchy very well. There is no need to fear. The worse fear is the fear among the officials themselves who fail to comprehend the changing maturity of the nation.

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