April 29, 2008
Mr. Darmp Sukontasap
Senior Vice President
Corporate and Legal Affairs
Tesco Lotus PLC
Fax: +66 02 797 9808
Dear Mr. Darmp,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned about libel lawsuits Tesco Lotus has initiated against journalists who reported and wrote opinion pieces on your company’s growing operations in Thailand. While we recognize the right of corporations to take civil legal action to protect their reputation, we view the complaints and the monetary damages Tesco Lotus is seeking in these cases as punitive and a direct threat to press freedom and free public commentary.
Tesco Lotus first filed suit in November 2007 against journalist Kamol Kamoltrakul for commentary he wrote for the Thai-language business newspaper Bangkok Biz News about Tesco’s rapid growth in Thailand and the threat that expansion represents to small-scale groceries and traditional local markets. Your company is seeking 100 million baht (US$3.3 million) from him for the opinions he expressed, which represent nothing more than fair editorial comment.
On March 19, Tesco filed another civil suit against Nongnart Harnvilai, an editor for the widely respected Thai language daily business newspaper Krungthep Turagit, likewise requesting 100 million baht in damages. Your complaint about her column centers on the sentiment expressed in its headline: “Ha, Tesco Lotus Doesn’t Love Thais.” Harnvilai expressed her opinion that Tesco Lotus’ expansion has come at the expense of many locally owned smaller groceries.
We also note that your U.K.-based mother company, Tesco, filed libel charges this month against the British daily newspaper The Guardian for an article it published suggesting that your company had evaded taxes on stamp duties through complex joint venture structures based on Tesco’s Thailand operations, a charge Tesco denies.
Your company has also filed a suit for 1 billion baht (US$33 million) against a former Thai legislator charged with monitoring retail developments. He had made critical comments about Tesco Lotus’ rapid expansion that were picked up in the local press.
Your company has repeatedly claimed in its complaints that the critical press coverage over Tesco Lotus’ Thailand operations represents “misinformation” and has damaged your corporate reputation. Your resort to legal measures seeking such large damages is in notable and disturbing contrast to Tesco’s previous openness to journalists who have reported on your company’s operations.
The lawsuits against local journalists are at odds with the various and often successful public relations campaigns your company has in recent years launched to promote your increasingly high-profile Thailand-based operations.
Global experience shows that once the precedent of excessive civil complaints is established the threat of future suits has a chilling effect on the press and reporters’ and editors’ willingness to pursue critical news stories. In all democratic societies the press has a civic duty to report on the activities of public companies which, similar to public officials, often make policies and take actions that have an impact on the general public and individual livelihoods.
We recommend that Tesco Lotus, a self-proclaimed transparent and socially responsible corporation, returns to its previous policy of engaging rather than intimidating journalists. We call upon your company to drop these punitive lawsuits which, through the excessive damages sought, represent a clear danger to press freedom in Thailand.