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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

Internet freedom fades

As in China, the Internet offers far more freedom than Thailand's mainstream media for discussing taboo topics. But that started to change in 2006, after the military ousted popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

As editor of Same Sky Books, a left-leaning periodical (online and print), Thanapol Eawsakul has often run afoul of Thai authorities.

In recent months, his site's Web boards have hosted lively debates on political upheaval and the role of the palace. Traffic on the website spiked last December when royalist protesters wearing yellow, the king's color, occupied Bangkok's airports in defiance of an elected government.

In January, authorities shut down the site, but it was moved to an overseas host server. Police have since questioned Mr. Thanapol and ordered him to delete allegedly offensive comments from the boards.

Using the computer-crime law, police can force webmasters to disclose data that allows IP address tracing. The editor of Prachatai, a news website and forum that covers sensitive topics, has been charged under the computer-crime law and faces up to 50 years in jail, if convicted.

Thanapol argues that open debate is healthy for everyone. "It should be advantageous for the royal family. We hold up a mirror that reflects back to them. Some people might not like this," he says.

Enforcement of lèse-majesté law

It's unclear to what extent the crackdown is supported by those whom it is supposed to protect. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to the palace denies any encouragement for the wave of arrests. "Nobody at the palace is driving this," the source says.

Experts say the law against lèse-majesté is often exploited by politicians to smear their opponents in the knowledge that authorities will feel obliged to investigate to prove their own fealty. Mr. Thaksin has repeatedly been accused of disloyalty to the throne.

At the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, a 24-hour war room monitors the Internet. A senior official, Aree Jiworarak, says 90 percent of the sites the ministry blocks are outside Thailand, complicating investigations of lèse-majesté.

In 2007, Thailand pulled the plug for several months on YouTube after antiroyal videos appeared. YouTube later agreed to block access in Thailand to videos deemed offensive to the monarchy, as it does in Germany with illegal Nazi content.

Mr. Aree complains that YouTube last year stopped responding to his frequent requests to block videos, forcing the ministry to do its own blocking. Scott Rubin, a spokesman for Google, said he wasn't aware of this and that the policy on country-specific blocking hadn't changed.

Aree says the royal family is informed about his investigations, as well as similar work by other government agencies. But he denies that this means a push for prosecutions. "We don't want people to think that the royal family are behind these arrests," he says.

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