Interview with Chiranuch Premchaiporn of Thai Netizen Network
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, known as Jiew, is the Director and webmaster of Prachatai, an alternative Thai news website, and is a founding member of the digital rights group Thai Netizen Network. News of her arrest upon her return from an Internet freedom conference spread quickly - a blog and #freejiew tag, a legal fund, news and opinion articles, condemnation by human rights institutions, a journalists' campaign, and critical analysis of the case and the Computer Crime Act under which she was charged. Now out on bail, Jiew now has two criminal charges against her, for which she faces a possibility of an 82-year sentence.
We asked Jiew about her role at Prachatai, her long-standing commitment to independent media, and the difficulties of trying to run an Internet company in Thailand.
When did you first go online and were your friends and colleagues also online then?
I connected to the internet for the first time in 1997 when I got my first Hotmail account. Only a few of colleagues, friends and family were online by that time. I basically used e-mail to communicate with overseas colleagues and those working in remote offices. E-mail was my main purpose of going online at that time.
When did you get involved with Prachatai and how do you spend your time being both webmaster and director?
I got involved with Prachatai since it started in mid 2004. As a director I am in charge for overall performance of Prachatai which includes informing/consulting the direction, tasks, and challenge of running Prachatai to board members. My job also includes looking after financial tasks such as seeking grants. I have to develop proposals based on consultation with board members and staff in Prachatai. Writing proposals and reports alone already requires a huge amount of time especially when Prachatai is trying to preserve its independence and try not to depend on only 1-2 sources of funding. Moreover, human resource management is another part of my job description as a director.
Being a webmaster is compulsory as I have to know everything about running a website including basic understanding of programming and designing. I have to cooperate with my IT personnel and some outsource consultants to develop Prachatai in the way that reflects its characteristics and yet be user-friendly to audiences and editorial crews with a limitation on our budget. In addition, Prachatai webboard was a part of engaging the audiences to enhance two-way communication and participatory of readers, then it was important that I decided to take care of this part.
Why did you get involved in Prachatai and the Thai Netizen Network?
I got involved with Prachatai as I agreed to the idea of the founder to build up an independent media to provide an alternative source of information. As my academic background is journalism and I had worked on HIV/AIDS advocacy, these made me well-understood of the role of media and rights of people to gain and share views and information. About Thai Netizen Network, I took part since it was formed because of my concern about the rights of internet users especially when the Computer Crime Act was recently enacted.
Tell us more about the arrests and the two cases brought against you.
For the first case, the police initially brought a search warrant to investigate my office. They later showed an arrest warrant to everyone's surprise. Never before there has been any sign of the arrest. I even have been cooperating with them as a witness and a website director.
In the arrest warrant, there was only one charge for allowing a user to post a forum topic deemed insult to the Monarchy. One year and three months later, nine more charges are added into public prosecution.
The second arrest was another strike of surprise. I was stopped upon return from the Internet at Liberty 2010 conference in Budapest and was brought immediately to Khon Kaen province. This case actually took place long before the first one when a Khon Kaen citizen lodged a complaint to the police against Prachatai in April 2008.
However, my charges this time are not only Section 14 and Section 15 of the Computer-Related Crime Act, but also lese majeste and raising unrest among people. The cause of the complaint is comments after an interview of a Thai man who refused to stand for the Royal Anthem. This proves that the law can be abused to disturb individuals because the charge can be filed anywhere and the accused ones need to report accordingly.
How have these events this impacted your life?
First of all, it can be very discouraging to be charged for running an independent media to let people voice their opinions and help the minority to be heard. It also made me worried about how my family feels and thus it gave me a hard time managing relationships.
I can hardly have a long-term plan in life. Having to report in Khon Kaen once a month is already too much to live peacefully, let alone preparing for trials coming next year.
Prachatai webboard, as an important work of mine, had to be shut down. It was not easy to give up on what I have laid a strong foundation, but the burden on both Prachatai and users themselves had been too much to manage. I felt like we can no longer guarantee a safe and free channel for people to express socially and politically.
What kind of effect has enforcement of the Computer Crime Act and Lèse Majesté laws had on civil liberties and human rights in Thailand?
Definitions of offences according to Computer-Related Crime Act can be even more broadly interpreted than those of lèse majesté law. Most charges for lèse majesté that took place on the internet were accompanied by "computer crime" charges. In case that the offence turns out not to be lèse majesté, it can still violate Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act.
Moreover, websites owners are forced to strictly keep their eyes on user-generated contents. This liability causes censorship to tense up and limits people's ability to speak up.
What has been the impact of these laws on the information technology industries in Thailand?
The laws require internet service providers and websites to invest a large amount of effort in monitoring and keeping logs of their services. They also have to comply massive censorship, let alone the loss of reputation that occurs when users cannot access websites.
The new regulation can also damage the economy. Technical burden can redirect online business startups to invest in overseas services instead of local ones. It might eventually prevent them from being founded.