Dec 082011

An American citizen has been sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for having posted criticism of the Thai king online. From Yahoo News:

Gordon, a former car salesman, is accused of having translated excerpts from the unauthorized biography “The King Never Smiles,” published by Yale University Press, into the Thai language and publishing them in a blog. He also provided links to the translation to other two Web forums, prosecutors say.

The case raises a number of issues. First and foremost, the chilling and censorious nature of the Thai “lese majeste” laws, which forbid criticism of the king. From the article:

Thailand’s lese majeste laws are the harshest in the world. They mandate that people found guilty of defaming the monarchy — including the king, the queen and the heir to the throne — face three to 15 years behind bars. The nation’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act also contains provisions that have enabled prosecutors to increase lese majeste sentences.

Opponents of the laws say that while the royal family should be protected from defamation, lese majeste laws have often been abused to punish political rivals. That is especially true since the nation suffered a 2006 military coup.

Many had hoped that the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which has some prominent supporters who have been accused of lese majeste, would reform the laws. The issue remains highly sensitive, however, and Yingluck’s government has been as aggressive in pursing the cases as its predecessors.

The rise of the Internet in recent years has given Thai authorities many more targets to pursue. Last month, Information Minister Anudith Nakornthap said Facebook users who “share” or “like” content that insults the Thai monarchy are committing a crime. Anudith said Thai authorities asked Facebook to remove 86,000 pages between August and November because of alleged lese majeste content.

Also notable with this case was that the defendant, Lerpong Wichaikhammat, aka Joe Gordon, while Thai-born, is an American citizen who had written the posts in question while he was living in Colorado. His arrest then came when he had visited Thailand.  The case thus raises other important questions, such as:

  • How can the Thai law apply to foreign content, and thus reach foreign actors? and
  • What risk do tourists face of incarceration if they should set foot on Thai soil?

Given the role of the Bangkok Airport as a major transit hub in southeast Asia the question is not academic. Will foreign travelers be exposing themselves to possible imprisonment without realizing it? Or, if they do realize it, will these laws have a chilling effect on their own, otherwise potentially protected, speech?

A related article in the LA Times also noted that the American Embassy has offered “a rare rebuke, saying that the punishment was too harsh and was a violation of free-speech rights.” As the US government considers its own possibly censorious Internet laws, its complaints of other countries’ may lose some persuasive weight.

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