The celebrated trial of a media reformer and a local newspaper for criminal defamation filed by Thailand’s largest telecom operator took a dramatic turn a month before the court was to issue its ruling after the company, Shin Corp, indicated it wanted to drop the charges.
Supinya Klangnarong, secretary general of Campaign for Popular Media Reform, the principal defendant in the lawsuit, said Shin Corp.’s lawyer Somporn Pongsuwan has approached her on 14 February asking her to agree to an out-of-court settlement of the case.
Supinya said she has not decided whether to accept or reject the offer. Earlier on, she had indicated that she would like to fight until the end and was ready for a long battle against Shin Corp, which was founded by the family of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She had said that should the court find her guilty of defaming the company, she would ask for a judicial review of her case from the Supreme Court.
Shin Corp had filed criminal and civil defamation suits in 2004, accusing Supinya and “Thai Post” newspaper of ruining its reputation after she said in a July 2003 article that the company benefited handsomely from government policy after its profits rose sharply after Thaksin became prime minister. The company later filed a separate civil lawsuit of the same charge against Supinya, demanding her to pay damage worth of 400 million baht or about US$ 10 million.
Trial of the criminal suit began in July 2005 and the court is scheduled to issue its verdict on 15 March.
Critics were quick to say that Shin Corp.’s decision to withdraw the lawsuits was an emergency exit to save the prime minister from potentially undesirable political outcomes, emanating from the court decision — whether over not it is in favor of Shin Corp.
The company had wanted to pursue the court battle in the hope that legal action would stop further criticism over the overlapping interests between the company and the Thaksin’ government. But recent developments arising from the sale of Shin Corp shares by Thaksin’s children and his wife’s family had put the spotlight on the very issue of conflict of interests.
‘The Nation’ in its 12 February commentary, said the company and the prime minister in particular may no longer wish to see the verdict roll even if it will turn out in their favor. The commentary suggested that a court victory would go against the growing public resentment against him over his family’s controversial sale of its shares in Shin Corp. to Temasek Holdings, the Singaporean government investment fund.
The Shinawatra family’s 73-billion-baht share sale, dubbed as the single largest deal in the Thai stock market, sparked a public outcry and calls for a close scrutiny of possible irregularities and abuse of power after Thaksin himself declared that his family need not pay capital gains tax on the sale.
The prime minister, who over the past five years has withstood the media’s scrutiny, including Supinya’s ferocious campaign against his inter-twined political and business interests, saw his political legitimacy quickly being threatened after details of the share sale were made public.
Questions of conflict of interests have haunted him since the start of his tenure as prime minister in 2001 and it seems that it would help bring him down in the second year of his second term.
Thaksin’s failure to disentangle himself from this shady deal, coupled with other allegations of abuse of power and corruption in his government are being used as
ammunition by various groups asking for his resignation.
The anti-Thaksin movement initially engineered by his arch critic and media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul is growing to include broad-based civil groups including student and labor movements.
At stake now is the political stability of Thaksin, not so much the credibility of the company he founded. To let the defamation verdict roll will expose him to further political and social backlashes.
For the free expression community and Supinya, the withdrawal of the lawsuit will mean depriving the nation of the opportunity to learn from this historic legal battle.
The trial has been seen as a test case to see how mature the courts would appreciate free expression rights in the country.
It is in the public interest to see the trial come to a proper conclusion as a court verdict will be a crucial milestone to establish jurisprudence for future application and interpretation of defamation laws in Thailand vis-à-vis the constitutional rights to free expression.
Now a dilemma is building. As The Nation’s commentary put it: “On the one hand, we would love to see Shin Corp retreat in order to alleviate Supinya and Thai Post’s troubles. On the other, many of us want this historic legal battle to go down to the wire.”
“We want to see a legal precedent that will serve as a benchmark for how far citizens can go in checking political leaders and their personal interests, supposedly two separate spheres that always get mixed up at the expense of the public interest,” the commentary said