Give graft a SLAPP
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Give graft a SLAPP

Following the dispiriting news of Thailand sliding further down the global anti-corruption index, a positive development has emerged on the graft-busting front.

A move is afoot by authorities to protect graft busters and whistleblowers against legal proceedings meant to discourage and intimidate them.

The cabinet on Tuesday approved in principle the Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (Anti-SLAPP) bill, which was proposed by the National Anti‑Corruption Commission (NACC). The bill is on the way to the Council of State for vetting after which it will be tabled by the House for final approval.

The cabinet's green light marks a victory for government corruption watchdogs and civic groups, which have campaigned for a decade for such legislation. Indeed, the NACC hopes the legislation, if passed, will become a game changer in the fight against corruption.

It is common knowledge that Thailand's efforts to combat corruption have seen few victories lately. In the most recent Transparency International rankings, released yesterday, Thailand fell six places in the Corruption Perception Index, to 110th from last year's 104th. The rankings analysed corruption conditions in 180 countries, giving Thailand a score of 36 in corruption clean-up efforts, well below the global average score of 45.

Corruption busters have reasoned that SLAPP lawsuits, or "legal bullying", are a factor in making the fight against corruption much more difficult.

According to the Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA), from 1997 to May 2019 there were 212 SLAPP lawsuits filed in Thailand, 196 of which were criminal cases with potentially heavy consequences including imprisonment.

In resorting to legal bullying, powerful people as well as groups under attack will file lawsuits against those alleging wrongdoing, often demanding ludicrous compensation for what they deem to be wrongs done upon them.

As a result, SLAPP lawsuits create a climate of fear and censorship. Unsurprisingly, when whistleblowers are reluctant to speak up, those genuinely in the wrong can go about their bad business without worry.

According to the NACC, if approved the Anti-SLAPP legislation will make officials, politicians and corporate entities think twice before using the law in dubious ways.

For instance, employees of state agencies would face disciplinary probes with the risk of being expelled from their jobs, were they found to have used legal intimidation to muzzle whistleblowers or perhaps to force them to negotiate. Violators can face jail terms of up to 10 years and/or fines up to 200,000 baht. The penalty for high-ranking officials will be doubled.

Let there be no mistake: the Anti-SLAPP law is not a silver bullet that can make corruption vanish overnight. But it can help level the playing field and provide an environment conducive to more honest dealings within organisations and by high-profile figures.

The bill defines what SLAPP is and how it's used, providing guidelines for police and public prosecutors. While some critics doubt the legislation will genuinely empower police and prosecutors to determine when and where SLAPP is being used to intimidate, the legislation does require officials to consult further with the NACC at any whistleblower's request.

Let us hope the House passes this crucial bill as soon as possible. In Thailand, whistleblowers and graft busters have been legally bullied for too long. It is time to push back.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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