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Government blocks thousands of websites that "insult the monarchy", plans to block hundreds more

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Thai authorities have blocked 2,300 websites for allegedly insulting the country's monarchy, with 400 more awaiting a court order to restrict them, media reports said.

"The Economic Times" online quoted Information and Communication (ICT) Minister Ranongruk Suwanchawee as saying on 6 January 2009 that "The blocking of websites that disseminate content and pictures which insult the monarchy is one of the government's crucial policies."

"We have blocked more than 2,300 websites. We are preparing to ask for court approval to shut down an additional 400 sites and will amend the (. . .) law to increase powers of ICT officials as soon as parliament reopens," she said.

Ranongruk said the ministry had spent THB 45 million (approx. US$ 1.28 million) to buy equipment for a round-the-clock "war room" targeting inappropriate websites.

The ministry will ask the ministries of justice, interior and defense to "decisively" prosecute violators, who face imprisonment and a fine for breaking the law, the minister said.

Defaming the royals in Thailand carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years but media groups say the law is often used as a political tool.

The royal family's role in politics became a sensitive subject last year amid protests by a group claiming loyalty to the monarchy which opposed the previous government for being too close to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

A court verdict on 2 December 2008 effectively dissolved that government, paving the way for Abhisit Vejjajiva to become prime minister mid way through last month. Parliament is due to reconvene on 21 January.

Abhisit, however, defended the crackdown in a recent interview, saying that there were "historical and cultural differences" with other countries.

"We will respect the rights, but those rights are exercised within the same limits that even the most liberal of countries apply," Abhisit said in the interview on 26 December.

In a related development, the Thai Netizens Network, composed of bloggers, online journalists and other Internet users, issued an appeal to the Democrat Party and the new prime minister to respect the rights of Internet users.

In a statement, the group enumerated their requests as follows:

1. The new government led by the Democrat Party ( . . .) must protect Internet users' rights and the liberty of online and mass media.

2. The government must respect freedom of expression as guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government must do so without prejudice or double standards, and it must never attempt to silence dissident opinions.

3. The government must amend the Computer Crime Act of B.E. 2550, especially in distinguishing rights to online communication from computer crimes. The amendment process should be open to the public and all other related sectors.

4. The government must protect personal information and privacy by establishing clear, fair laws and ensuring their just enforcement in accordance with international covenants.

The Thai Netizens Network said in its statement that "fair protection of citizens' rights and respect for human dignity are crucial to upholding democracy."

On the other hand, it cautioned that "government attempts to curtail online freedom would lead to more conflict, which adversely affects national security and the well-being of the Thai people."

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