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Government unblocks web forum, cautions criticism must be "within limits"; YouTube offers to teach authorities to block individual videos rather than entire site

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The military-installed government in Thailand has lifted a ban on a popular political chat room that was blocked over concerns of "national security", warning however that while the administration remains tolerant of public criticism, it must be "within limits" and should not damage "national security".

On 11 April 2007, the Information and Communications Technology Ministry (ICT) removed the block on the "Ratchadamnoen" chat room on Pantip.com ( http://www.pantip.com/ ) upon securing the owner's assurance that the forum will be censored for content deemed offensive to the king.

"We will increase the number of staff to watch the site for 24 hours a day," Pantip.com founder and owner Wanchat Padungrat was quoted as saying in a local report.

Even before it was blocked on 8 April, Pantip.com had been imposing strict measures to ensure responsible comments, requiring posters to register using their personal identity details to hold them accountable for their words. The website voluntarily shut down its "Rajdamnoen" chat room - seen as an important barometer of the people's sentiment - for two weeks after the September 2006 coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as it was unable to cope with the onslaught of comments.

Despite warning of "limits" in public criticism, ICT Minister Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom reportedly said blocking websites was not his policy. "I support freedom of expression," he said, but adding the caveat: "No websites will be banned as long as their contents are not indecent or insulting to the monarchy."

The ministry blocked the video-sharing website YouTube.com ( http://www.youtube.com/ ) in Thailand on 4 April, over a single clip that mocked the king. Although all remnants of the clip have been removed since 6 April, the furore arising from the initial ban spawned a dozen copycat clips, sparking fears of an escalating tit-for-tat response that will further tarnish the monarchy.

YouTube has reportedly declined to remove the contentious videos, instead offering to teach Thai authorities how to block individual videos without banning the entire website.

Meanwhile, bereft of their usual political chat room on Pantip.com for the past four days, regular users have had to seek refuge in other political web boards, forcing the owners to be extra vigilant about overly harsh postings.

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