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Thailand Lifts Ban on YouTube Following Spat Over Video of King

Thailand's interim government has lifted a ban on the YouTube Internet video-sharing service, after it agreed to censor content. The service was blocked five months ago after posting what authorities said were images offensive to the Thai king. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.

The government banned the YouTube web site five months ago, when an anonymous user posted images of the widely revered Thai king with a picture of a person's feet. This was considered offensive as in Thai culture the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body.

On Friday, the country's information minister announced that ban was lifted as a gesture to show that the government is committed to free speech. Officials said the site is again accessible in Thailand after YouTube agreed to filter the offensive materials from its content.

The lifting of the ban drew a cautious response from media reform advocates like Supinya Klangnarong of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform group in Bangkok. She accuses the government of eroding freedom of expression.

She says the decision on YouTube is only a superficial improvement.

"It seems to be good news, but actually it's unlikely, because even though now YouTube will be unblocked it seems that it comes with many conditions. It shows that now the government could negotiate with [YouTube] that they will selectively block the websites that [it deems] not appropriate," said Supinya. "So we saw that again, the government still has authority to block some of the websites due to the many measures that the public will not know what really the criteria of why a site would be blocked."

An interim government installed by the military rules Thailand, since the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup nearly a year ago. Elections are scheduled in December after Thais recently approved a constitution drafted by a military-appointed council.

The document guarantees freedom of expression, but Supinya says the government's interpretation of the law may mean continued restrictions on the media.

"The reasons that the government always tells the public [of] why they have to block the websites because it's about the content that's against His Majesty or against the monarchy and against national security or pornography, and those kinds of reasons are very convincing to [the] Thai public," she said. "So I think it's very hard now to defend freedom of speech, freedom of expression in Thailand, particularly under the authoritarian regime like this."

The media reform group stresses that it does not advocate criticism of the king, who has been widely credited for advocating rural welfare. The monarchy lost absolute power in Thailand in 1932.