Thai authorities strictly control the dissemination of information on the Internet under the pretext of protecting the King and the royal family. This censorship affects thousands of Web pages and has turned into a political tool. A dozen Internet users are currently being prosecuted for the crime of lèse-majesté.

The King: A taboo topic

It can be dangerous to discuss the King and the royal family in Thailand. Anyone who dares to do so will inevitably find himself accused of "lèse-majesté." Article 112 of the Thai Penal Code provides for jail terms of three to fifteen years for anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir to the throne or the Regent."

The Internet is controlled and monitored by the Thai Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (MICT), which blocks websites deemed to be offensive, particularly those which fall under the "lèse-majesté" charge. However, since this crime constitutes – according to the authorities – an offense against national security, the army as well as the police are involved. In January 2010, the Thai Defense Minister ordered all military units to monitor and contain any "subversive" action against the monarchy; whether taking place online or during political demonstrations.

MICT data shows that 16,944 URLs were blocked in July 2009. Close to 11,000 constituted a threat to national security, 5,872 allegedly contained socially or culturally inappropriate content, and 72 adversely affect the country's economy. Although 71 news sites sympathetic to the so-called "red-shirt" political activists were unblocked in April 2009, certain Internet service providers rendered the Freedom against Censorship in Thailand (FACT) organization's website inaccessible in the country.

YouTube is still blocking or removing videos deemed disrespectful of the King. In August 2007, the Thai government lifted a four month-old ban against accessing the video portal, once it received YouTube's assurance that the clips offending the King would no longer reside on the site.

Moreover, the 2007 Computer Crime Act vests authorities with the power to verify Internet users' personal data without the need for a court order.

Finally, denunciations are encouraged. Some individuals are voluntarily monitoring the media and the Internet to report any "inappropriate" content to the Cultural Surveillance Department. It is thought that close to 1.3 million people have already collaborated voluntarily with the censors. Internet users can report any website believed guilty of a "lèse-majesté" crime. All they need do is dial 1111 – the number of the Prime Minister's cabinet.

A dozen Internet users caught in a vicious judicial circle

One netizen is currently behind bars. Blogger Suwicha Thakor was sentenced on April 3, 2009 to ten years in prison for a "lèse-majesté" crime, despite the lack of evidence against him. Neither a politician nor a militant, Suwicha Thakor claims that he never criticized the King. He was arrested in January 2009 by the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) while staying at the home of friends in the country. His computer's IP address showed that his domicile might match the location from which content deemed defamatory to the King and his staff was posted.

At least a dozen Internet users are being prosecuted for the crime of "lèse majesté," including: Jonathan Head, British BBC correspondent in Southeast Asia, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Professor of Political Science and two bloggers, Nat Sattayapornpisut and Praya Pichai. As for Tasaparn Rattawongsa, a Thon Buri Hospital doctor, Somchets Ittiworakul, Theeranan Wipuchan, a former UBS Securities Group executive, and Katha Pajajiriyapong, KT ZMICO brokerage house employee, they all charged with having violated Section 14 of the 2007 Computer Crime Act by posting online "false information endangering national security." The Web users had laid the blame for the decline in the Bangkok Stock Exchange on the poor state of health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had been hospitalized since September 2009.

This proliferation of prosecutions is also meant to intimidate other Internet users inclined to criticize the King and induce them to rely on self-censorship. While other netizens have been briefly arrested or interrogated, but it is difficult to quantify their exact number, because many cases are not being publicized for fear of reprisals. A few cases of Thai surfers based in foreign countries, harassed for having mentioned the kingship online, have been brought to Reporters Without Borders' attention.

Censorship as a tool for political control

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is revered by the Thai population, who consider him to be the guarantor of national unity for a country prone to changes of government. He himself stated on December 5, 2005, on the occasion of his birthday: "In reality I am not above criticism ... for if you say the king cannot be criticized, it means the king is not human."

The King's state of health is causing serious concern. The media are practically not mentioning the subject, choosing self-censorship for fear of being accused of "lèse-majesté," but everyone is thinking about it. The Economist magazine was banned in the country in January 2009 following publication of an article criticizing the fact that resorting to talk of "lèse-majesté" allows the country to avoid necessary debate on the King's succession and the Thailand's political future.

Lèse-majesté seems to be an anachronistic law, and Thailand is one of the last countries on the globe to enforce it. However, it is more timely than ever in that the government's executive branch uses it as a tool to crack down on political dissent. The various governments – including Vejjajiva's – have been bolstering Internet filtering efforts since the 2006 coup, relying more and more often on accusations of "lèse-majesté" against their critics..

The majority of the population does not contest this law. However, on a global level, the authorities are on the defensive. A "campaign to educate foreigners about the crime of lèse majesté" was launched in January 2009. The international community must keep exerting pressure on a country that wants to maintain the positive image that the tourism industry is cultivating.

In January 2010, the Thai government announced that it intended to set up a committee to examine accusations of "lèse-majesté" in order to prevent "abuses." If these efforts do not produce improvements in the near future, Thailand is in grave danger of toppling from the "Countries under surveillance" category into that of "Enemies of the Internet."


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