Thai activist Jatuphat “Pai” Boonpattaraksa was sentenced this week to two and a half years in prison—for the crime of sharing a BBC article on Facebook. The Thai-language article profiled Thailand’s new king and, while thousands of users shared it, only Jutaphat was found to violate Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws against insulting, defaming, or threatening the monarchy.
The sentence comes after Jatuphat has already spent eight months in detention without bail. During this time, Jatuphat has fought additional charges for violating the Thai military junta’s ban on political gatherings and for other activism with Dao Din, an anti-coup group. While in trial in military court, Jatuphat also accepted the Gwangzu Prize for Human Rights.
When he was arrested last December, Jatuphat was the first person to be charged with lese majeste since the former King Bhumibol passed away and his son Vajiralongkorn took the throne. (He was not, however, the first to receive a sentence—this past June saw one of the harshest rulings to date, with one man waiting over a year in jail to be sentenced to 35 years for Facebook posts critical of the royal family.) The conviction, which appears to have singled Jatuphat out among thousands of other Facebook users who shared the article, sends a strong message to other activists and netizens: overbroad laws like lese majeste can and will be used to target those who oppose military rule in Thailand.
In addition to sending a frightening message to activists like Jatuphat who disseminate information, the ruling may reinforce existing chilling effects on journalism in Thailand. The lese majeste laws that can be used to target dissidents also limit what journalists and news organizations—particularly those with in-country staff or correspondents who rely on access to Thailand—can report about Thai politics. The BBC article in this case was a relatively objective, factual profile of King Vajiralongkorn, showing that even seemingly tame reporting and commentary may be construed as illegal. Even covering a case like Jatuphat’s can constitute a violation of lese majeste law, as reporting the details of a lese majeste crime may constitute reproducing illegal content and put journalists in a position to be accused of illegal royal defamation themselves.
Jatupat’s case is only the latest in the Thai government’s increasingly repressive and arbitrary attempts to chill expression online and censor content critical of the state, including banning interaction with certain exiled dissidents and making it a crime to simply view lese majeste content. These extremes are not just about stopping the flow of information; they are also about spreading fear among users that the authorities may be watching what they read, share, and say online. For users to have the best chance at fighting back, they need safe forums for peaceful debate, deliberation, and discussion online: forums that don’t dangerously tie their comments to their real identities and lives.