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.
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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.