Decriminalise defamation
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Decriminalise defamation

British migrant rights defender Andy Hall speaks to the media at the Bangkok South Criminal Court in September, 2016, after a verdict in one of his cases involving the Natural Fruit Company Ltd. (AFP file photo)
British migrant rights defender Andy Hall speaks to the media at the Bangkok South Criminal Court in September, 2016, after a verdict in one of his cases involving the Natural Fruit Company Ltd. (AFP file photo)

Following the Appeal Court's ruling last week quashing defamation charges against British human rights defender Andy Hall, activists who hailed this as a legal victory have made another call for the government to repeal the criminal defamation law.

However, it comes as no surprise that this call seems to have fallen on deaf ears within the military regime and its lawmakers who instead are inclined to broaden criminalisation against civil acts when it comes to their lawmaking and law enforcement.

The criminal case brought against Mr Hall, for his statements and publishing of reports on alleged human rights abuses at a fruit packaging company, reminds us of the chilling effect the Thai defamation law can have on freedom of speech.

Earlier, the Criminal Court ruled in 2016 that Mr Hall was guilty of criminal defamation and computer crime. He was given a suspended prison sentence and a 200,000-baht fine, but the company appealed the ruling. The legal battle began in 2013 after Mr Hall published his reports for Finnish consumer organisation Finnwatch, revealing allegations of human rights and labour abuses against Myanmar migrant workers who worked for the company.

After the Appeal Court ruling, the company can still appeal to the Supreme Court.

This is just one of many cases in which the criminal defamation law has been exploited to silence and threaten critics, activists, workers, journalists and politicians over the past decades. If found guilty under this law, Section 326 of the Criminal Code, a person can be jailed for up to one year and fined up to 20,000 baht.

Thailand should decriminalise defamation under the Criminal Code because the country already has Section 420 of the Civil and Commercial Code to handle defamation cases. Under this law, false statements which harm the reputation, credit, earnings or prosperity of other people could result in compensation having to be paid.

With the existence of the Civil and Commercial Code alone, businesses have increasingly used it as grounds to file libel cases against their critics. The most outrageous case was the 400-million-baht civil suit brought against then media reform activist Supinya Klangnarong in 2004 over her comment in a newspaper that Shin Corporation, owned by then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, benefited from government policies. Fortunately, the case was dismissed in 2006.

The criminal defamation law just provides an extra channel for businesses and the powers-that-be to threaten their critics or political rivals with lawsuits.

In addition to Mr Hall's case, a Thai-owned poultry company in 2016 filed a criminal defamation complaint against 14 Myanmar workers claiming they damaged its reputation by submitting a labour rights abuse complaint to the National Human Rights Commission.

The law has also been used against critics of public figures. For example, Pheu Thai politician Jatuporn Prompan last year was sentenced to a year in prison for his 2009 statements against then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

While the current regime has ignored calls to revoke this law, it has added salt to the wound by revising the 2007 Computer Crime Act, introducing a wider range of offences under broader and increasingly ambiguous provisions which make it easier for authorities to abuse their power.

Those who face criminal defamation lawsuits have usually been charged with computer crime if their statements were made online, adding more years to their jail term if found guilty.

Mr Hall also faced a computer crime charge, but it has been dropped as a result of the ruling last week.

Several countries have decriminalised defamation. Thailand does not need to keep this law which threatens freedom of expression, a right guaranteed by the charter. Following an election next year, a new government and new lawmakers must push for the repeal of this law to ensure no one is sent to jail for merely speaking, insulting others or publishing information.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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