Defamation suit in Thailand restricts BBC reporter’s freedom of movement

Bangkok, February 28, 2017–A court in Thailand has seized the passport of BBC reporter Jonathan Head in response to a criminal defamation suit filed by a Thai lawyer over a news report on alleged fraud committed on the tourist island of Phuket. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the restrictions on the reporter’s freedom of movement and calls for an end to the use of criminal defamation complaints against journalists in Thailand.

According to press reports, Head faces a potential five years in prison if found guilty of criminal defamation and a related charge for circulating the report online. Head reported in September 2015 that two foreign retirees were scammed out of properties they had purchased in Phuket. Thai lawyer Partuan Thanarak, who filed the case, claimed he was “defamed, insulted, and hated” by the BBC report, news reports said.

Head and a codefendant featured in the report pleaded “not guilty” to the charges during a court hearing on February 23, according to news reports. Under Thai court rules, Head was required earlier this month to surrender his passport to prevent him from fleeing Thailand while the trial continues, the reports said. News reports estimated the trial could last as long as two years.

“The BBC stands by its journalism and we will fight the allegations made against our correspondent by these proceedings,” a BBC spokeswoman told CPJ. “We have full faith in the Thai justice system, and we intend to clear the name of our correspondent.”

A BBC second representative told CPJ by email that Head must give the Phuket court a five to seven day notice period to request permission to leave the country for reporting and other purposes – a time-consuming requirement that will restrict the reporter’s ability to cover breaking regional news events.

Head’s current press credentials are scheduled to expire in May, after which he will be required to apply for a court visa that must be renewed every one or two months in the southern province of Phuket, a one-hour flight from Bangkok, where Head lives and works, the BBC representative told CPJ. Because of strict contempt of court laws in Thailand, the representative requested anonymity.

“The use of criminal defamation complaints in Thailand has a chilling effect on journalists who fear being bogged down in time-consuming and expensive litigation,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call on Thai officials to drop the unwarranted charges against BBC reporter Jonathan Head and to immediately return his passport so he can resume his work as a regional correspondent. We further call on Thai legislators to strike criminal defamation from the books.”

Government officials and private individuals have used criminal defamation and computer crime complaints to stifle critical press reporting. In 2013, the Royal Thai Navy filed criminal defamation charges against two journalists with the local Phuketwan news website for republishing a Reuters special report that claimed Thai naval forces profited from trafficking ethnic Rohingya.

Both journalists were acquitted of the charges in a September 1, 2015, court decision after nearly two years of time-consuming trial proceedings. Alan Morison, one of the charged reporters, told CPJ he spent nearly one-third of his work time preparing his defense in the case and that local advertisers stopped taking placements in Phuketwan for fear of official reprisal. The publication was forced to close for financial reasons during the trial, news reports said.