BANGKOK – A court sentenced a Thai webmaster Wednesday to an eight-month suspended sentence for not moving quickly enough to delete online comments deemed insulting to the country's royalty in a case widely seen as a test of freedom of expression in Thailand.
While the ruling showed leniency, it also sent the message that Internet content in the Southeast Asian nation must be self-censored. Chiranuch Premchaiporn had faced up to 20 years in prison for failing to quickly remove 10 comments others had posted on her Prachatai news website.
She told reporters she found the verdict reasonable but still had thought she would be acquitted.
The case drew international concern over censorship of the Internet in general and the liability of a website operator for comments posted by a third party.
"Today's guilty verdict for Chiranuch Premchaiporn, for something somebody else wrote on her website, is a serious threat to the future of the Internet in Thailand," Taj Meadows, Asia Pacific spokesman for Internet services giant Google, said by email.
"Telephone companies are not penalized for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites," he wrote. "The precedent set today is bad for Thai businesses, users and the innovative potential of Thailand's Internet economy."
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 offenses, but also bar the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security, which includes defaming the monarchy.
Her case 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.
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 ($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."
Several local commentators on Twitter noted that the verdict was a compromise.
"Jiew's verdict has basically everything for everyone, whether you're for or against netfreedom," wrote Arthit Suriyawongkul, a coordinator from the Thai Netizen Network who tweets under the name Bact'.
There was, however, general dismay about the verdict's implications for freedom of speech.
"By convicting the manager of a news website of a crime, the Thai authorities are showing the extreme lengths they are willing to go to stifle free expression," Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a prepared statement.
"More and more web moderators and Internet service providers will censor discussions about the monarchy out of fear they too may be prosecuted for other people's comments."
Prachatai was founded by several respected journalists, senators and press freedom activists to be an independent, nonprofit, daily Internet newspaper. It has attracted an audience of critics of the status quo, especially on the now-defunct web board where the comments at issue in the court case were posted between April and November 2008.
Thailand's freedom of speech reputation has taken a battering in recent years, with its standing in the Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders sliding to 137th out of 179 last year from 65th in 2002, when the ratings were initiated.