Government should protect press freedoms, decriminalize defamation laws

(Bangkok, October 3, 2016)—Thai gold-mining company Tungkum Limited should withdraw all criminal proceedings against the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) and four individuals employed and previously employed by Thai PBS, Fortify Rights said today. The Bangkok Criminal Court will consider the merits of the company’s complaints at hearings scheduled for today and October 10. 

Tungkum Ltd. alleges that Thai PBS damaged its reputation when it reported on allegations of adverse environmental impacts potentially connected to the company’s open-pit copper-gold mine in Loei Province in northeast Thailand. The company is seeking 50 million Thai Baht (US $1.4 million) in compensation as well as the revocation of Thai PBS’s operating license for five years. 

“It’s essential that Thailand’s journalists are able to do their work without fear of retaliation or legal harassment,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Thai PBS provides a vital public service and should be applauded, not harassed. These allegations are spurious and should be dropped immediately.”

The criminal defamation complaints brought by Tungkum Ltd. infringe on the right to freedom of expression and press freedoms, Fortify Rights said.

The rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press are protected under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party.

On September 1, 2015, Thai PBS aired a citizen-journalist news clip about a youth camp that was raising awareness about environmental protection in Wang Sa Pung District, Loei Province. A 15-year-old schoolgirl who attended the youth camp narrated the Thai PBS news clip, in which she alleged six villages in the gold mining area “have been environmentally affected from the gold mining industry.” She went on to say that “the River Huay has been contaminated,” and “villagers cannot use it for drinking or household consumption.”

On November 12, 2015, Tungkum Ltd. filed complaints of criminal defamation under the Thai Criminal Code and the Computer Crimes Act as well as other allegations against journalist Ms. Wirada Saelim; then-Director-General of Thai PBS Mr. Somchai Suwanbun; Mr. Korkhet Chantalertluk, Director of the News Department at Thai PBS; Mr. Yothin Sitthibodeekul, Director of the Television and Radio Department at Thai PBS; and Thai PBS itself. The complaints allege that nationally broadcasted media and online content from the citizen-journalist news clip damaged the reputation of the company. The hearings scheduled for today and October 10 follow from several previous hearings related to the merits of the company’s complaints.

Human rights lawyers from the Community Resources Centre Foundation are members of the legal team representing Thai PBS and its employees involved in this case.

Private companies and government authorities in Thailand have used criminal defamation laws to suppress media freedom and intimidate community leaders and human rights defenders. 

Tungkum Ltd. has brought six similar criminal defamation complaints against members of Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group—a community-based group advocating for the closure of Tungkum Ltd.’s gold mine and rehabilitation of the environment in Wang Sa Pung District, Loei Province.

Foreigners have also been targeted. On September 20, the Bangkok Criminal Court convicted Andy Hall, a British researcher, of criminal defamation and violations of the Computer Crime Act for his work on labor rights abuses in Thailand. The Natural Fruit Company Limited filed the initial complaint against Mr. Hall on February 14 for his work documenting alleged labor rights violations at the company’s factory in Prachaub Kirikhan Province.

Fortify Rights called on the Thai government to repeal criminal defamation laws and ensure that journalists are free to report on alleged human rights violations and environmental issues.

“Defamation should never be criminalized,” said Amy Smith. “The government should get behind the communities affected by mining projects, not the companies that seek to silence them.”

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