BANGKOK (AP) — A court sentenced a Thai webmaster Wednesday to an eight-month suspended sentence for not moving quickly enough to delete online comments deemed insulting to the country's royalty in a case widely seen as a test of freedom of expression in Thailand.
While the ruling showed leniency, it also sent the message that Internet content in the Southeast Asian nation must be self-censored. Chiranuch Premchaiporn had faced up to 20 years in prison for failing to quickly remove 10 comments others had posted on her Prachatai news website.
She told reporters she found the verdict reasonable but still had thought she would be acquitted.
The case drew international concern over censorship of the Internet in general and the liability of a website operator for comments posted by a third party.
"Today's guilty verdict for Chiranuch Premchaiporn, for something somebody else wrote on her website, is a serious threat to the future of the Internet in Thailand," Taj Meadows, Asia Pacific spokesman for Internet services giant Google, said by email.
"Telephone companies are not penalized for things people say on the phone and responsible website owners should not be punished for comments users post on their sites," he wrote. "The precedent set today is bad for Thai businesses, users and the innovative potential of Thailand's Internet economy."
Chiranuch was prosecuted under Thailand's computer-crime laws, which were enacted in 2007 under an interim, unelected government that came to power after a coup a year earlier. The laws address hacking and other online offenses, but also bar the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security, which includes defaming the monarchy.
Her case was inextricably linked to Thailand's fractious politics of recent years, as the country's traditional ruling class — allying big business, the military and royalists — has been desperately fighting to retain reverence for the monarchy and their influence over politics.
Most people still respect 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, but the evident involvement of palace circles in supporting the 2006 military coup against elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra opened the royal institution to unprecedented criticism, much of which was circulated on the Internet.
Bangkok Criminal Court Judge Kampol Rungrat said his guilty verdict was based on one particular post that was left on the Prachatai site for 20 days.