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Thailand cracks down on Web users for royal 'slurs'

Webmasters face criminal charges for comments posted on their websites deemed offensive to the royal family.

By Correspondent / July 29, 2009

Sentenced: Suwicha Thakhor left a Bangkok court in April after being given a 10-year jail term for posting a YouTube video that was deemed offensive to Thai royals.

Reuters

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BANGKOK, THAILAND

Using a combination of high-tech online sleuthing and a century-old royal defamation law, Thai authorities are tightening the screws on free speech here during a sensitive time for its influential monarchy.

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Caught in the middle are Thailand's webmasters, who face criminal charges over some of the impassioned comments posted on their websites. Police have accused webmasters of breaking a computer-crime law that puts the onus on them to delete uploaded data that could threaten national security. Several thousand Web pages have been blocked for their royal content.

For those caught posting comments or images deemed offensive to the royal family, the consequences are severe. In April, Suwicha Thakhor, an engineer and political activist, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for uploading antiroyal videos on YouTube. Dozens of other Internet users have been arrested, too.

Mr. Suwicha was found guilty under Thailand's law against lèse-majesté that makes it a crime to defame royalty. It applies to any kind of speech or writings, and its use has skyrocketed in recent years during a protracted political crisis that has lapped at the palace doors.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch (six decades and counting), is widely revered in Thailand for his moral guidance and for steering the country through previous political impasses. But his age and fading health have raised deep concerns for stability under his designated successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who lacks his father's stature.

Government crackdown leads to self-censorship

In addition to the charge of lèse-majesté, Suwicha was the first person to be convicted under the computer-crime law, which was passed in 2007. His case and other pending prosecutions have had a chilling effect in cyberspace, according to Thai website operators, free-speech activists, and human-rights groups, who say the result is greater self-censorship.

"People are understandably fearful that their information or commentary could run afoul of the law, and so they err on the side of withholding it," says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher on Southeast Asia for Amnesty International.

By defining lèse-majesté as a matter of national security, authorities have added teeth to the computer-crime law, which carries a maximum five-year jail term. Last month, a judge ordered the trial of a woman (who made an antiroyal public speech in 2008) to be closed to the public on grounds of national security. Her lawyer has contested the ruling.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power in December after months of paralyzing protests, has said he wants to strike a balance between free speech and respect for the constitutional monarchy. Critics say he has failed and is unwilling to take on conservatives in his administration that are leading the crackdown.

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