YouTube tries to mend rift with Thailand

/ Source: The Associated Press

Popular video-sharing Web site YouTube and the Thai government are discussing ways to end an impasse that arose after clips mocking the country's revered king appeared online, a Thai official said Saturday.

Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, the minister of information and technology, said the government would only remove its ban on the site once it has the technical capacity to block individual offensive pages.

"I am waiting to hear from (YouTube) about what can be done," Sitthichai told The Associated Press. "If YouTube can't suggest a solution that we can effectively implement, then we have no choice but to keep the ban."

Thailand blocked YouTube on Wednesday after its owner, Google Inc., refused to remove a slideshow of King Bhumibol Adulyadej juxtaposed with imagery deemed to be offensive.

Insulting the monarchy in Thailand is a criminal offense known as lese majeste. Last week, a Swiss man was imprisoned for 10 years for vandalizing portraits of the king.

After the site was blocked, several more videos mocking Thailand's revered king appeared on YouTube. Some of the new postings explicitly criticized the censorship of the first video.

An offer to ‘educate’
YouTube said one of its representatives has spoken with Sitthichai directly and that the Ministry's technical team is having difficulty understanding how to block individual videos.

"While we will not take down videos that do not violate our policies, and will not assist in implementing censorship, we have offered to educate the Thai Ministry about YouTube and how it works," said Julie Supan, head of global communications for YouTube.

Meanwhile, Sitthichai said that the site will remain blocked until all the contentious clips are removed.

"I am a proponent of free speech, but this is just culturally insensitive and offensive," he said, adding that he would not block access to materials that are anti-government. "But we will not tolerate materials that offend the monarchy."

He also said that the Ministry remained concerned about the difficulty of blocking new materials that appeared almost daily.

"Pulling down individual clips is not effective since they could repost them," he said.

Sharp reactions
The initial video, which was withdrawn Thursday, showed pictures of feet over the king's head — a major cultural taboo in Thailand, where feet are considered dirty and offensive — and graffiti scrawled over the 79-year-old monarch's face. At least one still frame from the video remained on the site.

A variation of the withdrawn video reappeared Friday, along with a new one that showed a picture of the king superimposed with a monkey's face. It also carried messages with profanities and said that Thailand's "leaders are evil and hate free speech."

The YouTube ban has drawn sharp reactions in Thailand.

Some have criticized the ban as a violation of freedom of expression and another sign of censorship by the military-installed government that took power after a coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Many viewers, however, have reacted with outrage, hurling abuse at the clip's creator. Some newspaper columnists have praised the ban, saying that YouTube should respect cultural sensitivities and not allow videos that would be considered illegal in Thailand.