Online Defamation Defendants Wait on Court Action

Andy Hall at the Bangkok South Criminal Court in August 2015. Photo: Andy Hall / Facebook

BANGKOK — A defendant in a defamation case was surprised to learn Wednesday that charges and convictions brought under the Computer Crime Act may be vacated, while a legal reform advocate said the improvements won’t end suppression of free speech.

One defendant said she did not know the revised law could no longer be misused to prosecute online defamation, and those critical of its abuse said conditions for free expression were unlikely to improve so long as defamation remained a criminal offense.

“The Computer Crime Act was just used to increase punishment,” said Anon Chawalawan of the Internet Law Reform Dialogue, an advocacy group that monitors legal cases. “So deleting that part does not guarantee there won’t be suppression of expression, as defamation still exists in the Penal Code.”

Read: 50,000 Defamation Suits May Be Dropped Wednesday

Anon acknowledged that progress was made by restoring the law to its original purpose as a tool to combat phishing and cyber scams after a decade of misuse to go after online speech. Online defamation under the original 2007 act carried harsher penalties than the version in the criminal code and mandated larger bonds to secure bail.

A prominent British advocate for migrant workers’ rights convicted and fined 150,000 baht last year under the Computer Crime Act said the consequences were deeply felt.

Andy Hall, who also received a suspended prison sentence for defaming Natural Fruit Co. Ltd. by contributing research used in a Finnish watchdog’s report, said he would not file a motion to vacate the conviction as his lawyer told him told him the courts would do so automatically if the revised law retroactively benefits defendants.

Regardless, Hall, who left Thailand under mounting legal pressure last year, said he will sue state prosecutors and law enforcement next week. He declined to specify the nature of his legal complaint.

“It already didn’t comply with global legal standards to treat the defamation as a crime,” Hall said Wednesday from Amsterdam.

Charged under both versions of defamation for sharing a Facebook post criticizing a military officer, Narissarawan Keawnopparat said she did hadn’t heard about the changes to the law and would wait to see what action the courts take.

“When it becomes a law, then it should be the duty of those who uphold the law to apply it,” she said Wednesday. “What would people who do not follow the news closely do if they don’t take responsibility for it?”

For Anon, the improvements made to the original act’s problematic Article 14(1) were offset by other changes broadening the law. The revised Article 14(2) punishes “false computer information” deemed harmful not only to national security, but also public safety, the economy and infrastructure.

Anon said it waits to be seen whether the vague article will become the new clause misused to prosecute whistleblowers.

“For example, if you post that the company violates worker rights. Will they interpret that it upset consumers and therefore damaged the economy?”