Company seeks massive damages in defamation cases

Bangkok, Thailand, July 28, 2005—A Thai company with ties to a former government official has filed criminal defamation complaints seeking massive damages from two daily newspapers owned by the Matichon media company. The Committee to Protect Journalists said today it is deeply concerned about the cases, part of a troubling trend toward litigation against the Thai press.

Picnic Corp. is seeking 10 billion baht (US$240 million) in damages in a July 18 complaint against the daily Matichon newspaper. Just days before, Picnic filed a complaint seeking 5 billion baht (US$120.5 million) against Matichon’s business daily, Prachachart Tooragit.

The 10 billion baht petition represents the largest such complaint ever filed against a Thai newspaper, analysts say. Picnic is also seeking a punitive court injunction against Matichon editors that would prevent them from working in journalism for a five-year period.

Picnic Corp, a cooking gas company owned and managed by the family of former Deputy Commerce Minister Suriya Lapwisuthisin, alleges that several Matichon reports concerning a recent financial scandal at the company were inaccurate and contributed to a decline in its share price. The publicly listed company faces a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into possible accounting fraud.

A Matichon editor in Bangkok told CPJ that the newspapers stand by the accuracy of their recent reporting about the company. Preliminary hearings are scheduled to begin in Bangkok on September 17, 2005.

“Thailand’s 1997 constitution clearly guarantees both freedom of expression and press freedom, giving Thai journalists the necessary space to report freely and fairly,” said Shawn W. Crispin, consultant to CPJ’s Asia program. “The massive damages sought in these cases send a worrying signal to all Thai newspapers that they could be next.”

The cases are in line with a troubling trend toward greater litigiousness against journalists in Thailand. In recent years, Thai corporations have filed a string of civil and criminal libel complaints against newspapers and commentators that have remarked critically on their business activities.

Shin Corp, Thailand’s largest communications company, last year filed criminal and civil libel complaints against a media activist and the editors of the Thai Post newspaper, demanding 400 million baht (nearly US$10 million) in damages in the civil suit. Shin Corp. was founded by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and is majority owned by his family.

Property developer Krisada Mahanakorn PCL likewise filed criminal and civil lawsuits against the small Thai language business daily Khao Hun in August 2004 for its reports about alleged irregularities related to company land deals near the new Bangkok international airport. Krisada Mahanakorn is requesting a 4.6 billion baht (US$110 million) award in the civil suit.
The Thai judiciary has placed the burden of proof concerning the accuracy of the stories on the defendant journalists and editors rather than the plaintiff corporations, representing a departure from international legal norms.