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Death of Imprisoned Man Highlights Thailand’s Unjust Lese Majeste Law
Freedom House is saddened by the death of 61-year-old Thai citizen Ampon Tangnoppakul, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted in November 2011 of violating the Computer-Related Crimes Act and Lèse Majesté law for sending text messages ‘offending the Thai royal family.’ His death calls attention to the pernicious Lèse Majesté law, which bans comments deemed offensive to the royal family in violation of the universal right to freedom of expression, and should be repealed.
The cause of Tangnoppakul’s death is under investigation and unclear, though several media outlets reported that he died from cancer. Tangnoppakul, known to Thais as ‘Uncle SMS,’ was accused of sending four text messages to an official working for former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and received one of the harshest sentences to date in a lèse-majesté case. He denied the charges against him, claiming he did not even know how to send a text message.
The CCA imposes criminal charges on anyone who has “supported or consented to” posting comments that are likely to “damage the country's security” or result in “public panic.” The CCA is vague though in defining what constitutes a crime. The Thai government has used Article 112 of the Criminal Code (Lèse Majesté) – which criminalizes defamation of the royal family – to curtail the space for diverse political opinions and freedom of expression online and offline.
“The use of the new Electronic Crime Act with lèse-majesté laws stifles free speech and political dissent in what has apparently become a deadly mix of repressive laws and harsh sentences,” said Courtney Radsch, senior program manager for the global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House. “We urge the Thai government to lift restrictions on political speech and opinion and repeal laws that constrain this fundamental right.”
Thailand’s ranking improved to Partly Free in Freedom of the Press due to the expansion of media coverage leading up to and following the July 2011 elections. Throughout the year, violence against journalists, censorship, and media restrictions lessened. However, the end of 2011 saw a return to repressive practices through a new online monitoring agency and the expanded use of lèse-majesté laws. Fines and imprisonment for defamation and criticism of the government are still used as a means to silence government critics. The government also stepped up monitoring of websites and social media under the ECA passed last December 2011. In December 2011, U.S. citizen Joe Gordon was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for defaming the monarchy. In May 2012, Thailand’s Criminal Court will decide whether to convict webmaster Chiranuch (Jiew) Premchaiporn, accused of violating the Computer Crimes Act by refusing to delete comments on the now-closed web board Prachatai.
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