Thai editor loses final appeal over royal slur conviction

Thailand's national police chief Jakthip Chaijinda speaking to the media in front of a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a news conference at Royal Thai Police headquarters on Oct 28, 2015.
Thailand's national police chief Jakthip Chaijinda speaking to the media in front of a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a news conference at Royal Thai Police headquarters on Oct 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's highest court on Wednesday (Dec 23) upheld a royal defamation conviction against an online newspaper editor who fell foul of the draconian law after failing to speedily remove reader comments deemed critical of the monarchy.

The ruling comes as junta-run Thailand undergoes an unprecedented lese majeste crackdown, with convictions rocketing and record breaking jail sentences handed down as authorities broaden their interpretation of the law.

Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of the popular Prachatai news portal, was initially charged over 10 reader comments posted on the website in 2008.

She was convicted by Thailand's Criminal Court in 2012 which found that while she had not personally committed lese majeste, the 20 days she had taken to remove one of the comments fell foul of the law.

The case drew widespread international condemnation at the time, including from Google which described it as a "serious threat" to Internet freedom in Thailand.

Wednesday's (Dec 23) final ruling upheld the 2012 conviction that carried an eight month suspended jail sentence and 20,000 baht (S$773) fine.

"I am disappointed with the verdict and I think the interpretation of the law has pushed a burden onto service operators," Chiranuch told AFP after the ruling.

Thailand has one of the world's harshest royal defamation laws.

Anyone convicted of insulting the revered but ailing 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or the queen, heir or regent can face up to 15 years in jail on each count.

Thai-based media have to self censor when writing about the monarchy, while website operators routinely delete reader comments that might land them in hot water.

Prosecutions have soared since the army, which styles itself as the champion of the monarchy, grabbed power in a coup last year.

Some of those who have fallen foul of the law have been given 20-30 year jail sentences, often for comments made on social media.

The law is also being increasingly broadly interpreted.

Earlier this month an auto-parts worker was charged with lese majeste for a Facebook post about the king's dog.

Academics have found themselves facing investigations for writing about past kings while Thai authorities recently confirmed that even "liking" a critical post on Facebook risks prosecution.

Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch's Thailand researcher, said Chiranuch's conviction was "tightening a chokehold on freedom of expression".

"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," he told AFP.

Prachatai, which publishes in both Thai and English, is one of the few remaining Thai news portals to run in depth reports on royal defamation.

In October, AFP awarded its annual Kate Webb Prize to Prachatai reporter Mutita Chuachang for her long standing coverage of the draconian law.

The prize recognises Asian journalists for exceptional work in dangerous or difficult conditions.

Any member of the public can allege royal defamation and the police are duty bound to investigate.

Critics say that situation often results in witch-hunts led by ultra-nationalists who comb through social media and monitor public events for possible breaches of the law.