CPJ concerned about delay in witness testimony in Thai trial

New York, August 19, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about a delay in the testimony of three international expert witnesses who were scheduled to appear in court in Bangkok this week in defense of media activist Supinya Klangnarong, who is on trial with the Thai-language daily Thai Post on criminal defamation charges.

Shin Corp. lawyer Somporn Pongsuwan told the court today he needed time to secure an interpreter because the experts would not be testifying in Thai language, even though Supinya’s defense team had two court-approved interpreters available, The Nation reported. “It’s not easy to find an interpreter these days,” Somporn said in court today. Shin Corp. is the complainant in the case.

The trial is scheduled to resume on August 30.

Lawyers representing Shin Corp. were able to block the scheduled appearances of Toby Mendel, director of the London-based anticensorship group Article 19; Sheila Coronel, an award-winning journalist from the Philippines; and Nick Cheesman from the Asian Legal Resource Council in Hong Kong, according to local press freedom groups.

It was not immediately clear when the expert testimony would be rescheduled, or if the expert witnesses would all be able to return to Bangkok to testify. Mendel told The Nation, “I may try to come back,” but he added that his return was not a certainty. “Supinya’s rights to a defense have been compromised,” he said.

“This blatant stalling tactic by Shin Corp.’s lawyers is disturbing,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said today. “We regret this delay in important expert testimony for the defense of Supinya Klangnarong. The defendants should be guaranteed every opportunity to present a thorough defense.”

Supinya, the secretary general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, and the Thai Post are defendants in a criminal defamation case brought by the Shin Corp., a communications company that is majority owned by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s family.

The charges came in retaliation for comments Supinya made in an interview with the newspaper in July 2003 about the appearance of a conflict of interest. She noted that Shin Corp.’s profits have increased since the prime minister took office in 2001. Shin Corp. is also seeking US$10 million in damages in an accompanying civil suit.

Thai politicians or their affiliated business interests are increasingly using criminal defamation laws in retaliation for critical news coverage—a trend reflecting a significant deterioration of press freedom conditions in Thailand, according to CPJ research.

This week, two state-owned firms filed criminal defamation charges against the editor of the English-language daily Bangkok Post, Kowit Sanandang, and the newspaper’s parent company, Post Publishing Plc. The charges carry penalties of up to two years in prison and a fine of 200,000 baht (US $4,900), according to news reports.