The price of telling the truth to the powerful can be high and devastating for ordinary people in Thailand, where the criminal defamation law is more popular than the civil libel law.
The rich and influential have preferred to use their power and resources to pursue criminal lawsuits against their critics because they know the prospect of being locked up in jail is more of a threat than being forced to pay financial redress.
Two recent cases -- one involving the judiciary's controversial housing project in Chiang Mai and another on alleged labour abuses at a Lob Buri poultry farm -- speak volumes about how outrageously and harmfully this kind of law has been exploited. They stand as a reminder that the existence of the criminal defamation law has had telling effects on those who merely expressed the courage to defend themselves or the public interest.
In the past week, the Office of the Judiciary has filed two defamation suits against civil activists who led the battle to reclaim the Doi Suthep forest area where 45 homes and nine buildings are being built to accommodate judges and judicial officials.
Before that, the judiciary already found itself in the court of public opinion for coming up with such a project. By filing suits against the activists who criticised it publicly, the judiciary has set a bad example of how a powerful public office capitalises on the defamation law to pursue a personal vendetta.
In a separate case, Chanchai Pheamphon, operator of the poultry farm Thammakaset Co, Ltd, has brought criminal suits against one of its former migrant workers, Nan Win of Myanmar, and a Thai activist, Sutharee Wannasiri, over their allegations about dire working conditions at the farm, lack of overtime and confiscated documents.
If convicted, the defendants in both cases can face a jail term of up to two years under the Criminal Code.
Like previous defamation lawsuits, the two cases do not demonstrate whether there is material damage or injury on the part of the plaintiffs, which is serious enough to demand criminal proceedings. Nor must they prove the speeches of the activists and the worker are malicious and harmful lies that could lead to imprisonment. They do involve the act of speaking out in a way that could hurt the reputation of the plaintiffs. If the Office of the Judiciary and the farm operator wish to seek redress, they should have filed civil libel cases and proved in court that the statements are false, and demand a correction or compensation.
The rich and powerful have disposable resources to fight their cases in civil court, putting them at an advantage over their critics. But they have needlessly resorted to seeking criminal cases against them, thanks to the existence of criminal defamation provisions and a lese majeste section in the Criminal Code and Computer Crime Act that criminalises defamation.
What makes matters worse is how easy it is for public office holders and rich people to pursue such criminal lawsuits. The police and public prosecutors have cared too little to consider whether cases involving malicious and harmful intentions that have caused damage are significant enough to be considered criminal.
Thailand has been a hotbed of criminal defamation for years. Activists and political dissidents are the usual targets. More recently, red-shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan was released from jail in August after serving a one-year term for "defaming" former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Since the 2014 coup, many critics and activists have been jailed or faced criminal lawsuits over lese majeste and computer crime offences.
Thai and foreign journalists have also become the subject of the defamation law for keeping the public well-informed.
The criminal defamation law has become a weapon for the privileged few to silence, threaten and unjustly seek the imprisonment of their critics. It is time for Thailand to repeal it from all the forms of law and let "damaged parties" seek redress in the civil court.