Thailand jails man for 35 years for Facebook posts that insulted its royal family

A man in Thailand has been sentenced to 35 years in prison after he was found guilty of insulting the country’s royal family on Facebook.

Identified only as Wichai, he is alleged to have published 10 photos, videos and comments on the social network that violate Thailand’s strict lèse majesté regulations that outlaw criticism of the royal family, according to free speech group iLaw.

The 33-year-old is accused of creating the posts using a “fraudulent” account that purportedly impersonated a former friend with whom he had quarreled. Wichai initially denied the charges but, after spending more than a year in jail while the case was processed, he changed his response and confessed, iLaw said.

Journalists were banned from attending the hearing today, which took place in a military court. Initially, the court prescribed seven years per offense, but it subsequently reduced the overall sentence from 70 years to 35 years. Nonetheless, this is a record sentence for the Thai law, which the UN has called “incompatible with international human rights law.”

In a separate case, iLaw added that another man — “Chaliew” — was given 2.5 years in jail for posting a clip from a radio program to a file-sharing site in 2014. The clip was judged to have defamed the monarchy.

Thailand has been criticized for its use of lèse majesté and other censorship strategies since the military seized control of the government via a coup three years ago. Human rights group FIDH reported that the total number of people arrested under lèse majesté following the coup passed 100 last month.

Today’s ruling is not the first instance of jail time given to a person for Facebook comments, likes or even just receiving a message. It even outlawed online interaction with three overseas-based critics of the current regime. More broadly, the government has pressed ahead with controversial plans to implement a single internet gateway that would simplify online censorship.

That’s because the current system requires participation from overseas content platforms, which are reluctant to censor their users. Recently, the Thai government has put pressure on social networks themselves to clean up illegal content. Facebook has begun to block posts directly when a court orders it to, and, this year, it and YouTube both deleted hundreds of URLs that were deemed to be illegal in the country.

However, officials were not satisfied that many links remained, and the ruling junta issued a threat to ban access to Facebook over the issue. However, it backed down on that and Facebook remains accessible in the country.

All of this, and more, explains why online freedom groups are increasingly concerned about Thailand. In its 2016 report, U.S.-based Freedom House concluded that Thailand’s internet and media are “not free.”

“Internet freedom declined in 2016 as the military leadership continued its efforts to codify censorship and surveillance powers through legislation,” the group wrote.