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Thailand cracks down on Web users for royal 'slurs'

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Government crackdown leads to self-censorship

In addition to the charge of lèse-majesté, Suwicha was the first person to be convicted under the computer-crime law, which was passed in 2007. His case and other pending prosecutions have had a chilling effect in cyberspace, according to Thai website operators, free-speech activists, and human-rights groups, who say the result is greater self-censorship.

"People are understandably fearful that their information or commentary could run afoul of the law, and so they err on the side of withholding it," says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher on Southeast Asia for Amnesty International.

By defining lèse-majesté as a matter of national security, authorities have added teeth to the computer-crime law, which carries a maximum five-year jail term. Last month, a judge ordered the trial of a woman (who made an antiroyal public speech in 2008) to be closed to the public on grounds of national security. Her lawyer has contested the ruling.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took power in December after months of paralyzing protests, has said he wants to strike a balance between free speech and respect for the constitutional monarchy. Critics say he has failed and is unwilling to take on conservatives in his administration that are leading the crackdown.

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