Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is alarmed by a Thai court’s recent decision clearing the way for a Bt400 million (US$10 million) civil libel suit against a media reform activist in Bangkok.
The suit – brought by Thai media and telecommunications giant Shin Corp. against Supinya Klangnarong of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR)- comes on top of an earlier criminal libel case filed against Ms. Supinya. That case and the new civil suit filed this week hail to court Supinya, a Thai newspaper, and three of its editors. If found guilty on all charges, the journalists and the media advocate could be imprisoned and slapped crippling monetary penalties.
All the accused in the civil and criminal cases are being sued for suggesting in a published article that Shin Corp. was unfairly benefiting under PM Thaksin Shinawatra’s tenure. The family of PM Thaksin holds a major stake in Shin Corp.
SEAPA, an advocate for press freedom and access to information in Southeast Asia, is concerned that the court decision allowing the libel suit to prosper sets a precedent that could have a chilling effect on the Thai media. SEAPA believes the development could undermine the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of Thai journalists and civil society to scrutinise and question government policies and decisions.
“The amount being sought by Shin Corp. is outrageous and staggering,” SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay said. “It is 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. That the Thai courts is allowing such grossly disproportionate claims to proceed also puts into question the Thai government’s adherence to Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms for the country’s press.”
The new civil suit was filed on August 22 and comes just two weeks before Supinya, the secretary-general of CPMR, and her codefendants from the local-language newspaper “Thai Post”, start their criminal libel trial on September 6.
In a press statement released on August 24, CPMR defended Supinya’s accused libelous remark as legitimate, saying her remarks and CPMR campaigns to promote the public’s rights to know and freedom of expression, were all made in the interest of the public.
“If society allows powerful political and business groups to take legal action against social watchdogs over acts in the interest of the pubic, no one else will dare to express their opinion, speak the truth, or criticize,” the CPMR said.
CPMR and other local civil networks are have launched “Fund for Supinya”, a campaign to mobilize financial resources for her and her co-accused’s legal defense.
The Thai Criminal Court’s decision last June to accept Shin Corp’s libel suit was seen as the start of a landmark case that should test the Thai justice system’s impartiality and gauge civil society’s resolve in keeping government and its business cronies in check.
It would also test the Thai government’s adherence to constitutional guarantees on the public’s right to free expression and information.
Shin Corp’s libel suit stems from a story quoting Supinya, who said that based on facts that she had gathered, it appeared that the corporation was a major beneficiary of Thaksin’s policies. She noted a sharp rise in Shin Corp’s profits since Thaksin became prime minister in February 2001.
The story was published by the Thai Post on 16 July 2003. Founded in 1983, Shin Corp controls iTV television station, owns Thailand’s biggest mobile phone company and Internet provider, and holds a monopoly on the satellite communications business in Thailand. According to the company’s financial statement, its income rose sharply from US$2.02 billion in 2001 to US$3 billion in 2002.