Thai webmaster sentenced in free speech case

A Thai court handed an eight-month suspended sentence to a website editor for failing to quickly remove posts deemed offensive to monarchy.

Bangkok: A Thai court sentenced a local webmaster on Wednesday to an eight-month suspended sentence for failing to act quickly enough to remove Internet posts deemed insulting to the country`s royalty in a case widely seen as a test of freedom of expression in this Southeast Asian nation.

The ruling showed leniency toward Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who faced up to 20 years in prison for 10 comments posted on her Prachatai news website, but it still sends the message that Internet content in Thailand must be self-censored.

Chiranuch was prosecuted under Thailand`s computer-crime laws, which were enacted in 2007 under an interim, unelected government that came to power after a coup a year earlier. The laws address hacking and other online offences, but also bar the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security, which includes defaming the monarchy.

Her case, which drew international attention, was inextricably linked to Thailand`s fractious politics of recent years, as the country`s traditional ruling class allying big business, the military and royalists has been desperately fighting to retain reverence for the monarchy and their influence over politics.

Most people still respect 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but the evident involvement of palace circles in supporting the 2006 military coup against elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra opened the royal institution to unprecedented criticism, much of which was circulated on the Internet.

Bangkok Criminal Court Judge Kampol Rungrat said his guilty verdict was based on one particular post that was left on the Prachatai site for 20 days, which was deemed too long.

Chiranuch "did not perform her duty in a timely manner" and "allowed the inappropriate posting to be on the website for too long," the judge said.

Chiranuch was initially given a one-year suspended sentence that was immediately reduced to eight months, on the basis of her cooperation with the court and being a good citizen.

She also was fined 20,000 baht (USD 625), which she quickly paid with help from supporters and colleagues who handed her cash.

"I expected to be acquitted, but I found the judge`s verdict logical and reasonable," a smiling Chiranuch, also known as Jiew, told reporters.

"However, I still think the verdict will have an impact on self-censorship."