BANGKOK — Thailand on Thursday accepted its controversial royal insult laws may have been misused and could "inadvertently" have affected freedom of expression, in response to UN concerns.
The aim of lese majeste legislation, which prohibits criticism of the monarchy and is punishable with up to 15 years in prison, "is not to limit" freedoms of speech or academic discourse, the Thai Foreign Ministry said.
"Be that as it may, in recent years, there have been cases where the law has been enforced in such a way that may not be in line with its purpose of protecting the dignity of the monarchy and may in some cases inadvertently affect people?s freedom of expression," it said.
It said the government recognises "potential issue arising from the application of this law and also wishes to prevent the misuse of the law".
The statement comes after Frank La Rue, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, called on Thailand to amend the laws, saying a recent increase in legal cases highlights the urgent need for reforms.
La Rue said such laws "encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression".
The foreign ministry statement said the lese majeste law works "in a similar way" as libel law does for commoners, stressing that individuals must be "accountable" for the views they express.
It added that a special committee in the Royal Thai Police headquarters had been set up to scrutinise potential prosecutions.
Academics have noted a sharp increase in new royal insult cases in recent years and rights groups have expressed concern that the law was used to suppress freedom of expression under the previous government.
On Monday, a US citizen Joe Wichai Commart Gordon pleaded guilty in a Thai court to charges of insulting the monarchy.
He was arrested in May during a holiday in the kingdom and accused of translating a banned unauthorised biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej into Thai and publishing it on the Internet while living in the United States.
Thailand's royals are an extremely sensitive subject in the politically divided country.
King Adulyadej, 83, the world's longest-reigning monarch and revered as a demi-god by many Thais, has been in hospital since September 2009.
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