Publishing criticism of the government on online forums is not only an expected example of free speech in the United States, it’s encouraged—celebrated, even. But for Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster and director of Prachatai, an online newspaper in Thailand, it could get her 20 years in prison.
Premchaiporn, 44, who goes by the nickname Jiew, currently is on trial for failing to immediately take down negative remarks about the Thai monarchy posted on her site —a criminal offense in her country.
Premchaiporn is one of four brave women journalists who will be honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation at the 2011 Courage in Journalism Awards for risking their lives to cover the news. Two events are slated, on October 24 in Los Angeles and October 27 in New York.
Joining Premchaiporn are Reuters' Iran bureau chief, Parisa Hafezi; editor Adela Navarro Bello of Mexico’s Zeta newsmagazine; and reporter Kate Adie, the BBC’s first chief news correspondent, who will be awarded the IWMF’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Free on bail, Premchaiporn is now using server/Web hosting services outside Thailand, but even if found innocent at her trial, she faces a second trial after being arrested again for allowing “unlawful” comments on her site.
We recently spoke with the journalist about the arrests, how her job affects her relationships with her family and why it’s worth the risk to fight for Internet freedom. An edited version of the interview follows.
More: Police raided your office, questioning you for five hours. How scared were you?
Chiranuch Premchaiporn: At first they didn’t show up with an arrest warrant, they just showed a search warrant asking to search the entire office. I agreed to let them search in the office. [Later] they said they wanted me to go to the police office too, and they showed me the arrest warrant. I was shocked. I didn’t think I would have an arrest warrant in my life, but I have two now. So I went to the police office and I denied all accusations and set an appointment to be bailed out. …There were many people giving me support at the police office. There were many people from the press.
More: And later, traveling back to Bangkok from a conference, you were arrested a second time, by Thai immigration. Again you were charged with allowing anti-monarchy comments on your site, with the possibility of 50 more years in prison.
CP: The second [arrest], for me—you can call it a nightmare. [Before,] every time I go home, I would feel like, OK, I’m home. But after [the arrest] at the airport, the feeling is much different. You will feel like you are a criminal at the airport, and [now] my feeling is that every time I return to Bangkok I have to be worried about what’s waiting for me next. I will always be nervous and worried when I have to pass through immigration or passport control. It’s a side effect of that experience.
More: What has the legal process been like?
CP: The first arrest is already processed through the court and the trial will be resolved by the end of this year, we expect. And for the second case, I don’t know yet, because right now the case is still in the hands of the police. I still hope that they will drop the charge.
More: What do think the outcome will be in the current trial?
CP: I’m not sure yet, but so far I think our defense is quite strong. We have had a lot of support and concern and it should not be considered a crime.
More: Does your family ever wish you would switch careers?