The International Federation of Journalists today called a recent Thai court decision finding Supinya Klangnarong not guilty of criminal defamation as a landmark decision against criminal defamation in South East Asia.
Yesterday, a verdict handed down by a Thai court in Bangkok ruled that as Shin Corp was a publicly listed company and that as television and telecommunications airwaves are public property that the defendants had the right to criticise their use by Shin Corp. The court ruled that the defendants were expressing an honest opinion made for the benefit of the public and that Shin Corp must be made accountable to the public because the company had “relatives [of the prime minister] working there”.
“The Thai courts have made the right decision,” said IFJ President Christopher Warren. “However defamation cases should never even make it to a criminal trial and defamation should be struck from all penal codes.”
''The court rules that the defendant's comment was made in good faith and without malicious intent to defame the firm,'' read part of the verdict. Shin Corp reportedly attempted to settle with Supinya and the Thai Post as recently as yesterday, however the defendants opted to let the courts decide. Supinya maintained that unless Shin Corp announces that it embraces press freedom, no settlement or an apology would be forthcoming.
Supinya, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR) was charged over comments made in an interview published in the Thai daily newspaper (and co-defendant) the Thai Post in July 2003. Co-defendants in the case were Thai Post owner Thai Journal Group Co, chief executive officer Roj Ngammaen, marketing executive Kannikar Viriyakul, and editor Thawisin Sathitrattanacheewin. Thai Post defendants were also found not guilty due to the court finding the daily had reported Supinya’s comments without alterations.
The family of Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra were the previous owners of Shin Corp, and held that position at the time the article was published. In the article, Supinya suggested that Shin Corp financially benefited from Thaksin Shinawatra’s election as prime minister. “Public officials should not be media moguls,” said Warren. “Public officials should have a higher threshold for criticism, as a fundamental part of their duty to be accountable to the people who have elected them.”
The IFJ has supported Supinya throughout the trail, and posted a staffer in Bangkok during the witness hearings.
Even though Supinya and the Thai Post have been acquitted of the criminal defamation charges, this does not affect the outstanding civil proceedings commenced by Shin Corp. In the civil suit, Shin Corp is suing for 400 million baht, or over US$10 million, an amount similar to the exorbitant 500 million baht (US$12.1 million) sought by the Thai prime minister in a libel case last year.
“The amounts being sought for alleged defamation are crippling," said Warren. “A demand for wildly inappropriate damages has the same effect as jailing journalists: it undermines press freedom and prevents criticism of the government.”
The IFJ is calling upon the Thai Government to ensure that civil defamation decisions are based upon tests of reasonableness and appropriateness, that establish a link between statements made and harm caused, so that cases based on spurious grounds are not permitted to proceed.
The Shin Corp defamation case also highlights the need for legislation within Thailand to ensure that public officials and politicians do not have conflicts of interest within their business dealings. The Supinya decision in Thailand comes at an opportune time, as other nations within South East Asia are moving away from criminal defamation.
In East Timor, president Xanana Gusmao has returned to the Ministry of Justice a decree criminalising defamation, in order for it to be reconsidered. In Cambodia, the prime minister has supported calls for criminal defamation laws to be overturned, placing his support behind press freedoms. In Indonesia in February, a Supreme Court bench struck down the use of criminal defamation in that country, in a unanimous ruling overturning Bambang Harymurti’s criminal defamation conviction. It ruled that the Press Law should instead be used in defamation cases against journalists.
“The Thai Government and other Asian nations must continue the path to press freedom," said Warren. “This can be achieved by getting rid of criminal defamation altogether and implementing appropriate checks for civil defamation”.
For more information please contact IFJ Asia Pacific +61 2 9333 0919
The IFJ represents more than 500,000 journalists in over 110 countries