1 December 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
On 30 November 2005, Southern Bangkok’s civil court dismissed a civil defamation lawsuit filed by a retired senior police officer against 17 people, including a women’s rights activist, senior journalists and publishers of six local dailies, and an ex-army officer.
The lawsuit, which sought 2.5 billion baht in damages, stemmed from several statements published in 2003 and which accused then-national police chief Gen. Sant Sarutanont of trying to court a female TV reporter. One of these statements suggested that Sant’s actions amounted to sexual harassment.
The recent court decision however dismissed the defamation suit brought by the police general, saying the statements were made in good faith. The court also ruled that the damages sought by Gen. Sant was unreasonable and should therefore be nullified.
Sant reportedly invited a female reporter of TV Channel 9 for a talk on private matters on 26 May 2003 while she was on reporting mission of a cabinet meeting in Phuket province. And in a separate incident on 31 May 2003, Sant asked his subordinates to persuade her to meet him and join him on a free helicopter ride back to Bangkok from Ubonratchathani province where she covered another cabinet meeting.
The incident was brought to the media’s attention by the reporter’s friends and prompted Thai Journalists Association and Thai Broadcast Journalists Association to issue a joint statement warning the media community of the case and urging female reporters to take precautions to avoid such situations. The TJA also urged then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to set up a disciplinary committee to look into the matter.
Sant sued for defamation in 2004. Among the defendants were former army advisor Maj. Gen. Kattiya Sawasdipol, women’s rights activist Ticha na Nakorn, and a senior reporter of the “Bangkok Post” Yuwadee Tunyasiri, all of whom made statements about the story on the general’s reported indiscretion. Also sued were publishers of the Thai dailies, “Matichon”, “Kao Sod”, “Manager Daily”, “Thai Post” and “Baan Maung”, and the “Bangkok Post”, which published the statements as part of their news coverage.
But apart from concluding from testimonies that Sant’s alleged misconduct did likely occur, the court also ruled that the public and the media have the right to criticise public officials for any improper behavior.
The ruling also suggested that the published statements concerning this incident have been made in a fair manner and righteously served as a warning to senior civil servants against any possible misbehavior in the future.
On 24 November the civil court of Thailand affirmed the same principle, by rescinding a gag order on two sister media companies, Manager Media Group and Thaiday.com. The decision partially lifted the court’s earlier order banning Thaksin’s staunch critic and the companies’ founder Sondhi Limthongkul from criticising Thaksin and disseminating remarks against the prime minister, pending the hearing of libel cases against the media mogul. The court also ruled that the prime minister is a public figure that can be fairly criticized by the public and the media.