In Thailand, Defamation Lawsuits Can Make Free Speech Costly

The Thai activist, Sutharee Wannasiri, knew the poultry company had violated labor laws. She went on Twitter in 2017 to share a video containing an interview with an employee who said he had to work day and night with no day off.

The poultry company hit back, suing Ms. Sutharee for defamation and libel. Though a court found her not guilty in 2020, the company wasn’t done.

While the case was still pending, her colleague at their human rights organization spoke up for Ms. Sutharee on Twitter and Facebook. She, too, ended up being sued for defamation and libel. Now the colleague, Puttanee Kangkun, is facing a maximum of 42 years in prison as she awaits a verdict.

The cases exemplify what often happens in Thailand when companies and government officials are unhappy with public criticism. A criminal defamation charge follows in which critics are accused of spreading falsehoods, and defendants find themselves mired in lengthy legal battles and facing the threat of a prison sentence.

Powerful figures who know they can use the courts to intimidate, harass and punish critics have taken advantage of what the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights has called “judicial harassment” in Thailand.

Though the poultry company, Thammakaset, has been found guilty of labor abuses, it has continued to take its critics to court: first, people who talked about the labor abuses, and later those who complained about the measures the company was taking to silence those people.

Since 2016, Thammakaset has filed 39 lawsuits, mostly criminal defamation cases, against 23 individuals: migrant workers, human rights defenders and journalists. It has lost all except one, which was later overturned on appeal.

Three are still pending.

In addition to Ms. Puttanee, Thammakaset is also suing Angkhana Neelapaijit, a former National Human Rights Commissioner in Thailand, and Thanaporn Saleephol, a press officer for the European Union in Thailand.

All three women took to social media to criticize Thammakaset’s lawsuits. All three are accused of defamation and libel; they are being tried together.

Many nations in Southeast Asia have criminal defamation laws, but Thailand stands out. Citizens “are just much more aggressive” in using the law to “drag people into judicial processes that are slow and expensive,” according to Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

In addition to the criminal defamation law, there is the Computer Crimes Act, which makes it a crime to upload “false” information that can “cause damage to the public.” Another law, protecting the Thai monarchy from criticism, allows ordinary Thais to file complaints for violations.

A U.K.-based rights watchdog, ARTICLE 19, cited statistics provided by Thailand’s judicial authorities showing that public prosecutors and private parties have filed more than 25,000 criminal defamation cases since 2015.

“The business and political elites see this as very effective because the courts are risk-averse; they accept almost any case that is, on its face, nonsensical,” Mr. Robertson said.

Faced with calls to address the rampant misuse of the courts, the Thai government amended its Criminal Procedure Code in 2018 to make it easier to dismiss cases against defendants who can argue they are acting in the public interest. But lawyers say little has changed.

Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, the lawyer representing Ms. Puttanee, Ms. Angkhana and Ms. Thanaporn, said she filed a petition to get the cases thrown out under this provision, but the court denied her request.

Thammakaset’s complaint against the three women centers on the 2017 video shared by Ms. Sutharee, which was made by Fortify Rights. Ms. Puttanee works for the organization; Ms. Sutharee and Ms. Thanaporn both used to.

In their Twitter and Facebook posts, Ms. Puttanee, Ms. Angkhana and Ms. Thanaporn expressed solidarity with the activists who were persecuted by Thammakaset. Their posts linked to a Fortify Rights news release and a joint statement with other human rights organizations that ultimately linked to the video.

Thammakaset has cited the video, which includes an interview with a worker describing working long hours and having his passport withheld, in its complaint.

In 2016, the Thai authorities ruled that Thammakaset had failed to pay minimum and overtime wages or to provide adequate leave to workers. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s order for the company to pay roughly $50,000 to a group of 14 employees who had filed the labor complaint.

During a hearing for the three women in March, Chanchai Pheamphon, the owner of Thammakaset, told the judge that he had already “paid his dues” to the workers, yet the online criticism continued to hurt his business and his reputation.

He said his children had asked him whether the family’s money had come “from human trafficking, from selling slaves.”

“How should a father feel when his children asks him this?” Mr. Chanchai said, his voice rising. “I have to use my rights to fight. But using my rights is seen as threatening, using the law to silence them.”

Mr. Chanchai told the court that no one wanted to do business with him anymore. But in March, two rights groups published an investigation showing that after Thammakaset canceled its poultry farm certifications in 2016, a new poultry company called Srabua was established by a man who shared the same address as Mr. Chanchai.

Mr. Chanchai denied any knowledge of Srabua.

Asked by a New York Times reporter if he planned to file more lawsuits against critics of the company, Mr. Chanchai said, “You’re a reporter for a big news agency. If someone says you’re a drug dealer, will you fight back?”

Decriminalizing defamation cases could have saved Thai taxpayers $3.45 million over 2016 to 2018, according to the Thai Human Rights Lawyers Association. Defendants in civil suits can also expect to pay large sums of money out of pocket.

During the March hearing, Ms. Puttanee, 52, brought a backpack stuffed with clothes to court. Commuting from her home to the court takes two hours each way, so each time she attends a hearing, she books a hotel at her company’s expense.

She said she expects the case to last four years if Thammakaset decides to bring its argument all the way to the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, Ms. Puttanee counts herself lucky: She is in a community that has rallied around her, and her lawyer works pro bono.

“But I still treat this as intimidation,” she said.

During the hearing, Mr. Chanchai detailed how Ms. Puttanee’s Twitter posts had defamed his company. His account took five hours; Ms. Puttanee nodded off during his testimony.

Ms. Angkhana, the former human rights commissioner, is well known in Thailand because of her husband, Somchai Neelapaijit, a human rights lawyer who vanished in 2004 and whose fate remains unknown.

She said the current lawsuit has taken a toll on her mental health.

“It is repeated trauma when somebody attacks you, when you didn’t do anything wrong,” said Ms. Angkhana, 67. “This is the real aim of the company — to make you feel powerless.”

Ms. Thanaporn, 29, said there was irony in becoming a victim of the very process she was denouncing, simply by sharing support for her fellow activists online.

“The fact that I can be sued for this speaks for itself,” she said.

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