Thailand: Court clears activist, journalists of defamation charges

New York, March 15, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the acquittal of media activist Supinya Klangnarong and four journalists from the Thai-language daily Thai Post on criminal defamation charges brought by telecommunications giant Shin Corp.

The Bangkok Criminal Court dismissed the charges on Tuesday in a move widely hailed as a victory for press freedom, which has come under assault from Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who founded Shin Corp.

The court said that public companies, like public figures, should be open to criticism which is in the public interest. The judges cited Article 40 of the Thai constitution which broadly guarantees that national telecommunication frequencies should be used for the public interest.

Shin Corp., which until recently was owned by Thaksin family members, filed the criminal complaint against Supinya and the Thai Post journalists in October 2003. The defendants faced possible two year jail terms and fines of 200,000 baht ($5,000). The company later filed a follow-up civil suit seeking 400 million baht ($10 million) in damages.

“We applaud the court’s ruling in favor of Supinya and the four Thai Post journalists,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “We hope this landmark decision will serve as an important precedent for the many other criminal defamation suits still pending in Thai courts.”

The Shinawatra family sold its controlling stake in Shin Corp. in January to Singapore’s state-run Temasek Holdings in a deal valued at $1.88 billion. In February, Temasek contacted Supinya’s lawyers and requested an out-of-court settlement. Supinya declined the offer.

Supinya said that the verdict should set an important precedent for the defense of freedom of expression and press freedom, which are guaranteed under the 1997 constitution. “This should be a lesson to other powerful politicians and corporations that using legal means against fair criticism won’t work,” Supinya told CPJ after the verdict was read.

Thai politicians and their affiliated business interests have filed a growing number of defamation suits against Thai journalists and news publications, often seeking enormous damages. The increasing use of litigation to curb press criticism has had a chilling effect across the country’s print media, engendering a culture of self-censorship at many previously critical publications.

In one such case, the politically-connected Picnic Gas PCL filed a civil defamation suit against the Thai-language daily Matichon seeking 10 billion baht ($240 million) in damages. The case is still pending.

Last year, Thaksin filed six different criminal and civil defamation suits against media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul. The prime minister sought a total of 2 billion baht ($50 million) in damages in the civil suits. He dropped the charges after King Bhumibol Adulyadej indirectly criticized the lawsuits during his nationally-televised annual birthday address.