Thailand government critic Jatupat Bonnpattaraksa, a.k.a. Pai, has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for lese-majeste, or insulting the king.
Pai, a former law student who has been outspoken about the military junta running the country, was arrested just two days after Maha Vajiralongkorn took the throne as the new king last December. Pai's crime: sharing a BBC Thai profile of Vajiralongkorn. The article was fairly objective—you can read the English-language version of it here—and thousands of people shared it on social media. Pai was the only one targeted by authorities.
Pai pled guilty and had a five-year sentence reduced to two and a half. "Pai confessed," his attorney told Reuters. "He knew that if he tried to fight the charges it would not be of any use."
As Reuters notes, the number of arrests for the crime of lese-majeste has increased sharply since the military overthrew the democratically elected government back in 2014. The arrests have often targeted government critics.
"Jatupat's case is only the latest in the Thai government's increasingly repressive and arbitrary attempts to chill expression online and censor content critical of the state, including banning interaction with certain exiled dissidents and making it a crime to simply view lese majeste content," the Electronic Freedom Foundation's Gennie Gebhart writes. "These extremes are not just about stopping the flow of information; they are also about spreading fear among users that the authorities may be watching what they read, share, and say online."
Human Rights Watch condemned the verdict, and in a statement its Asia director, Brad Adam, suggested Pai was "prosecuted for his strong opposition to military rule more than for any harm incurred by the monarchy."
Amnesty International also condemned the verdict. "This verdict shows the extremes to which the authorities are prepared to go in using repressive laws to silence peaceful debate, including on Facebook," Amnesty International's Josef Benedict said in a statement.
This sort of repression should be a reminder of the importance of the First Amendment. As hate-crime laws are coopted to cover classes of people like police officers, it's easy to imagine how hate-speech rules could be similarly deployed. Pai's persecution also highlights the importance of protecting anonymity online. The rise of trolling has led to calls to eliminate anonymity on the internet; Facebook has made it difficult to use the site without revealing your identity, even as it also becomes a tool and traffic hub for activism. Facebook is free to run its own network the way it wants, but opponents of anonymity need to understand that anonymity doesn't just protect trolls; it protects people from troll governments.
Please share your totally appropriate and not-at-all insulting comments about the Thai king in the comment thread below.