Thailand news editor faces computer crimes charges

In Jan. 2008, the Computer Crimes Act was about six months away from taking effect in Thailand. It was part of the Internal Security Act, a complicated series of laws that were passed just before the leaders of a military coup held elections to restore democracy to the country. In Bangkok, journalists and web entrepreneurs were worried. Their main concerns were, first, the vagueness of the law, and second, the requirement that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, log web usage. In essence, the ISPs had to be able to report who was doing what and saying what online, but exactly what information was to be logged was unclear.

No one was quite sure how the law would or could be applied, just that it was the kind of law that could be used quite easily for political rather than security purposes. Chiranuch Premchaiporn told me then that this scared her more than Thailand’s infamous lese majeste laws, which accord steep punishments for anyone who insults the King. If she was accused of lese majeste, Premchaiporn said with her ubiquitous smile, at least the King could pardon her.

Premchaiporn is the editor of a pioneering news website, Prachathai. Today, her site reports that she was arrested and then granted bail for violating the Computer Crimes Act. According to the BBC and the Thai daily newspaper The Nation, police officers arrested her on Friday afternoon and confiscated hard drives from Prachathai‘s offices in Bangkok. Premchaiporn’s alleged violation is allowing lese majeste comments to appear on the site in discussion boards. She has reportedly been charged under Article 15 of the Computer Crime Act, which makes it illegal for anyone to support or consent to Internet posts that violate criminal codes or present a threat to national security. She faces a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

“When the joke became true, [it was] a bit of a shock,” Premchaiporn wrote in an email. “Our lives will go on and this charge won’t stop me from doing what I need to do.”

A series of lese majeste charges filed in recent months have called into question Thailand’s committment to freedom of expression. Two weeks ago, an Australian author was pardoned after spending seven months of a three-year sentence in prison. Political scientist Giles “Ji” Ungpakorn left the country after being charged with lese majeste for his book about the 2006 coup. BBC reporter Jonathan Head (who inicidentally wrote one of the first English-language reports about Premchaiporn’s arrest) is currently facing three charges of lese majeste for comments he allegedly made to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok.

Being charged under the Computer Crimes Act, however, presents different challenges than being charged with lese majeste because it has not yet been applied against individual news reporters. The law has been used so far most often against pornographers and to temporarily shut down websites, including YouTube and Prachathai. Two of Prachathai‘s web board users were arrested and then released in Aug. 2007 for comments they made about Thai royalty, but the government never brought charges against them.

The Asian Human Rights Commission and the Committee to Protect Journalists have criticized the action against Premchaiporn and Prachathai as a threat to free expression.

[See my past entry about Bangkok, the elections and the Computer Crimes Act. For more on the Computer Crimes Act, see Don Sambandaraksa’s Bangkok Post article, reposted by Freedom Against Censorship Thailand.]

silver linings

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for about a month to pursue projects and travel. (Lucky for me, slow blogging is in for 2009.) For most of the last few weeks, I have been in Sri Lanka, meeting people and learning about their lives. For its beautiful sunsets, delicious varieties of tea and wild elephants, there is little escaping the fact that this is an island at war. Colombo’s one-way boulevards are littered with army and police checkpoints, where heavily-armed “vigilance committees” question travelers and check ids. Sometimes the soldiers and officers are serious and to-the-point; sometimes they are conversational, like a welcoming committee with machine guns.

On the first day of the new year, even on the heels of a year marred by bloody wars and financial crises, it is customary to look for a silver lining. After all, we have our health. When you are on a tropical island, the impulse is the same. We’re here — why not sun bathe?

One weekend, I was lucky that some friends of a friend took me along to a villa retreat in the south of the island. The drive along the west coast takes you past small towns and resorts and some of the most untouched beaches you can imagine. Our hosts rented out a three-bedroom house, a beautiful property with beach access and a pool on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We had strong coffee and grilled fish and lounged in an outdoor living room, where the walls facing the ocean are forgone in favor of natural breezes and a spectacular view. Reading gave way to naps on the veranda, regulated by the rhythym of the ocean. A dip in the pool followed by a glass of chilled wine cooled the afternoon heat.

But on our first afternoon of relaxation, the quietness of our light conversation by the pool was cut by a large crash and the sound of speed breaking through the air. Our heads turned up; I didn’t see anything between the tips of the coconut trees that framed the sky. My better-informed companions said the sound was a MIG fighter jet from a nearby airforce base. Seven minutes later, I read on my phone that there was an air strike up north, where the heaviest fighting is taking place.

While I was in Sri Lanka, beach-going tourists were stuck at Bangkok’s airport, cordoned in or out by yellow-clad protestors, and globe-trotting visitors to Mumbai were struggling with terrorist attacks on hotels. I went for a holiday in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, and ran into some pretty big protests that took place along a row of popular hotels. I watched the crowds of sign-wielding dissentors and riot-gear-ready police with an elderly Japanese woman who had emerged from her hotel confused and scared about the sirens and the surprisingly loud crashes that come from canisters of teargas.

The absurdity of tourists in the middle of conflicts not their own is exceeded only by the absurdity of so many acts of violence happening in the world today. Still, we seek that silver lining, the chilled wine on the patio that gives us respite from a war or a crashing housing market or a political battle. We celebrate a new year to help us get through the serious tragedies or mundane hardships of the last one. And we hope that the next time we celebrate, things will be better.

boating around Borocay

So happy new year, wherever you are. (Boating in the Philippines, around Borocay.)

eight-hour layover

I’m pretty well acquainted with the airports of transportation hub city-states. The airports of Hong Kong and Singapore are well-designed places where travelers can keep living or working or holidaying, instead of just waiting. While I was living in Singapore, the proud little red dot unveiled its brand-new Changi Airport terminal, the enviable T3, where environmentally friendly vines cling to indoor walls and sculptures, waterfalls flow from architecturally integrated fountains, and brides and grooms gather to take advantage of the soft lighting for their wedding memories (no joke — I saw it with my own eyes and discovered later that the airport advertises itself as a wedding venue). I’ve made three trips through the spacious arrival and departure halls of the Hong Kong International Airport, where you get floor to ceiling views as planes taxi in and out against the backdrop of the island’s beautiful, rolling hills.

Airports in Asia compete to be the most beautiful, the best for shopping, the grandest. But my layover in Hong Kong this time around — an eight-hour marathon of aimless walking and bottom-numbing musical chairs — reminds me that a) I can get pretty restless and b) the world is very connected.

The flight boards show many cancellations today. Flights to or via Bangkok are all not coming or going. Flights to Mumbai are delayed. Travelers here watch the news and know people who are or were or might have been in these places, stuck or injured or worse. And its that sense of, “It could have been me,” on such a grand scale that makes geography almost irrelevent. I’m working on the first episodes of a podcast called “Global Lives” — this, I suppose, is one of the drawbacks to the otherwise exciting lives of people who consider the whole world their home.

Gateway of India

On my last visit to India in December, 2007, (correction) June, 2008, the Gateway of India in front, the Taj hotel just across the street.

One Night in Bangkok

Ok — so, I couldn’t help this one.

I was sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, and, well, this is the song that came on the radio. But it was a cover that I can’t find on YouTube. It sounded almost like a love song — but maybe everything in Bangkok has that soft rock feel to it. (They also play a lot of Dido here, which I know at least one of you might appreciate.)

My week in Bangkok coincided with the week leading up to Thailand’s legislative elections, the first since a peaceful military coup in September, 2006. There has been a lot written about the elections, so I won’t spend too much time on it here,except to say that people told me that the ousted prime minister, Thaksin, maintains a lot of support, and they were right. The People’s Power Party, a reincarnation of Thaksin’s dissolved Thai Rak Thai party, took the most seats in the parliament and is looking to form a coalition and create a majority in the goverment. The results of the elections are being contested on several fronts, but it will be interesting to see how the Democrat Party and coup leaders respond, and if Thaksin returns to Thailand, though he has publicly stated that he will not return to politics.

Even if the election is seen as a referendum on the coup, and even if coup leaders and anti-Thaksin politicians lose their seats of power, they have certainly left a mark. On the Thursday night before the election, the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly quietly passed the Internal Security Act, a vague law that gives the military to take action during security crises. The bill was one of many that were being pushed through ahead of the election and activists are calling on those laws t be annulled by the newly elected parliament.

Included in the Act is the Act on Computer Crimes, which establishes many vague new authorities about content on the Internet. The provision that is making journalists and activists most nervous — though this is also a part of the law that many people are not aware exists — is one that will require Internet Service Providers and companies to keep logs on their users and employees activities (see sections 26 and 27 of the Act). They have to be able to match specific activity on the Internet to specific names of people.

Don Sambandaraksa of the Bangkok Post does a better job of explaining this than I do (reprinted here by Freedom Against Censorship Thailand). Companies, including newspapers, have to comply by keeping logs, or face heavy fines for being asked to hand over information they don’t have or aren’t willing to give up.

Internet logs or no Internet logs, Bangkok is truly a fantastic, vibrant city. Below are Muay Thai boxers and a view from the commute out of the city center on a water taxi.

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(Also this week, for new music — including my own little tip, which was actually a tip from someone else — and other goodies, check out Asia Pacific Art’s Best of 2007 issue.)