Without Freedom of Expression

Suwicha Thakor is a family man.

The 37-year-old shares a crowded home in Nakhon Phanom in north-eastern Thailand with his wife, three children and dependent father.

An engineer by trade, Thakor sent his oldest child, a boy of 16 named Kanchai, to a bilingual school in Bangkok. The boy wants to study computer engineering at university. Although Kanchai is far from home, the family agrees his schooling is worth it.

Unfortunately, Thakor will be away from his children longer than expected.

Kanchai recent returned to Nakhon Phanom and the local school with his brother and sister. His mother Thitima couldn't keep up with her son's school payments.

Money has been tight for the past few months. It might still be for the next 10 years. That's the length of the sentence Thakor received in April for posting two comments on a website deemed insulting to Thailand's monarchy.

"Most of my friends don't know about this. Some people who got wind of it came to ask if I was related to the man who got arrested," Thakor's 14-year-old daughter Kanyawat told a Thai newspaper. "But there's one person who knew I was my father's daughter, and he deliberately asked me aloud right in front of my school."

As Thakor endured the first few months of his prison sentence, a similar story unfolded in North Korea. There, two American journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for entering the country without a visa. This, unlike Thakor's story, rightly caught the attention of politicians, the media and the public.

Earlier this month, former President Bill Clinton even travelled to Pyongyang to ensure their pardon and bring the women home. Their release was an important victory for freedom of press worldwide.

But, Thakor's story is a setback.

In Thailand, the crime of lese-majeste (or defaming, insulting or threatening the King and the monarchy) carries a harsh penalty. In January, authorities matched the IP address on Thakor's computer to two such comments. He was arrested at a friend's home and denied bail twice. Even though his sentence was cut in half because he pled guilty, the procedure for seeking a royal pardon was suspended.

Thakor's crime is something that millions of us in North America do every day. Our press writes articles and readers are encouraged to express their views in comment sections.

There, you can share your views. But, unlike Thakor, you probably won't spend the next 10 years in jail for doing so.

Thakor is not a journalist. He has no American passport or friendship with someone from the mainstream press. That means, besides a petition campaign from Reporters Without Borders, his story hasn't garnered the political response of the American journalists.

In Australia, a group of human rights activists campaigned to name a newborn elephant in his honor while the Doha Centre for Media Freedom has been helping his family financially. Still, Thitima has been forced to sell many of Thakor's hard-earned possessions.

While Kanchai is closer to home, dealing with the stress of having his father in jail has had repercussions on the bright student's grades.

"I have not been able to concentrate much because I've been thinking about my father," Kanchai told the media.

Thakor may not be a journalist. But, as the internet changes how news is disseminated, so to does it change the definition of the practice. Thakor was contributing to the debate media is supposed to elicit. Having true freedom of press and freedom of speech means we need to remember the hundreds of others around the world who have been jailed for expressing their opinions.

Thakor is a family man, not a criminal. He deserves to go back home, too.