Thailand lifts ban on YouTube

BANGKOK: YouTube is back.

Thai censors lifted their ban Friday after five months of blocking the online video site because it had carried material seen as insulting to the country's highly venerated king.

The site's management has agreed to block any future clips that are deemed offensive to Thai culture or that violate Thai law, said Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, the minister of information and communications technology.

Among the Thai postings on the reopened site Friday was an apology said to be from a woman who had posted one of the original clips about the king under the pseudonym Paddidda.

"Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej Paddidda Apology!" read its headline, using a variant spelling of the name of King Bhumibol. It is followed by a rambling monologue implying that the insulting clips were posted by supporters of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted a year ago in a coup.

"I will work for Thaksin no more," the apology read, in English, with a Thai voice-over. "Yes, I might have achieved nothing, but it is better than to be hated forever."

Sitthichai said the agreement with YouTube - a site that allows people to post and share video clips - had been reached some time ago but that there had been technical problems in implementing it.

"Any clip that we think is illegal, we will inform YouTube and YouTube will have a look independently," he said. "If YouTube agrees that it is illegal for Thailand or against Thai culture, they will block it from viewers in Thailand."

People outside Thailand would be able to view the clips, he said, just as they are able to buy books that are banned in Thailand.

Thailand is particularly sensitive about how the monarchy is portrayed in books and films. A strict law against lèse-majesté imposes a jail term of up to 15 years for anyone who "defames, insults or threatens" the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.

"Every country has rules, maybe legally, maybe culturally, that one cannot cross," Sitthichai said in an interview.

The 1956 Hollywood film "The King and I," about the 19th-century Thai court, has never been permitted to be shown in Thailand, and a remake, "Anna and the King," was also banned in 2000.

In March, a Swiss man who used spray paint to vandalize images of the king and Queen Sirikit was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was quickly deported after the king pardoned him.

Thailand blocked access to YouTube on April 4 after Google, its owner, rejected a government request to remove several clips the government said were offensive to the king.

In an image that seems horrifying in the Thai cultural context, one of the clips showed the king with clown features painted on his face and an image of feet above his head, a highly insulting gesture in Thailand.

"The protest was loud enough from people all over the country," Sitthichai said. "I would estimate that 99 percent of the population supports our action in blocking YouTube."

The controversy over YouTube in Thailand illustrates the difficulties governments and private companies face today as electronic media crisscross legal and cultural boundaries.

A letter from Google to the Thai government in May stated, "We have the deepest respect for His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. We likewise respect Thailand's law and tradition and hope that we will be able to reach a mutually acceptable resolution to the current controversy."

It discussed a number of videos whose removal Thailand had requested and said some appeared to be politically critical of the government but not to violate lèse-majesté laws.

"We must strike appropriate balances in order to respect local laws while maximizing access to information in societies around the world," the letter said.

For its service in China, Google has agreed to tailor its search engine to block Web sites the Chinese government disapproves of. In France and Germany, the company has blocked sites that could run afoul of those countries' restrictions on Holocaust denial and hate speech.

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