[Original Title: All eyes on Thailand as Supinya trial set to start]
A landmark trial on freedom of expression in Thailand starts on 19 July 2005. Beginning Tuesday, Thai courts take on a criminal defamation lawsuit that pits one of the country’s most powerful corporations against a media activist and a local newspaper.
The case takes on heightened significance as the corporation involved is owned and run by the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, no less. Already, media and press freedom advocates from Thailand and around the world are gearing up for the trial which they hope can draw concern and outrage from the Thai public, and more importantly galvanize and widen awareness and support for the cause of free expression in the Kingdom of Thailand.
Shin Corp.—a conglomerate that holds a monopoly over Thailand’s satellite communications industry, owns Thailand’s only “independent” television network, and has leading investments in the Internet and telecommunications—is suing the Thai Post, a Thai-language daily, and Ms. Supinya Klangnarong, executive director of a media reform NGO, over published comments of Ms. Klangnarong. On 16 July 2003, the Thai Post quoted Ms. Klangnarong as she questioned a spike in Shin Corp’s annual revenues coinciding with Mr. Thaksin’s first year in office. According to the company’s financial statement, its income rose sharply from US$2.02 billion in 2001 to US$3 billion in 2002.
Acting on the published report, Shin Corp. on October 2003 sued for defamation, a charge that under Thai law could send Ms. Klangnarong and Thai Post editors to prison for up to three years. Last year, a civil suit was additionally filed, with Shin Corp. seeking US$10 million in damages.
Press freedom advocates in Thailand, Southeast Asia, and around the world have criticized the charges, the disproportionately harsh penalty being sought, Shin Corp., and Prime Minister Thaksin himself, and are urging the Thai courts to dismiss the defamation cases. They note that Ms. Klangnarong’s statements were made in the interest of transparency and good governance. They point to the United Nations Convention on Human Rights—to which Thailand is a signatory—and Thailand’s own 1997 Freedom Constitution, both of which guarantee citizens’ rights to free expression, especially in the interest of serving the public.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)—an alliance of free press advocates from around the region—warned that the very filing of charges against Ms. Klangnarong and the Thai Post could have a chilling effect on the rest of the Thai media community.
“The very act of filing charges was clearly intended to send a message to the Thai press that questioning corporations and government on conflict of interest matters will have dire consequences for the press as a whole,” SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay said.
SEAPA said the Supinya trial will set pivotal jurisprudence for free expression in Thailand. “This case will either free people to speak out for a better Thailand, or it will teach them to never question people in power. It will either empower Thai democracy, or it will tell the people to keep quiet even when they believe public office is being abused, to say and do nothing even when they know something is wrong,” Alampay said.