2 October 2004
The start of a civil libel case that has Thai journalists anxious over the security of their sector has been pushed back to the second half of next year.
A three-member panel of Thai judges hearing the case against media advocate Supinya Klangnarong and the newspaper Thai Post resolved to consider the matter only after a criminal case against the same defendants have been concluded. That case-which stems from the same story that brought on the civil case-was also delayed from September 6, 2004, to July next year.
The criminal and civil cases against the Thai Post and Supinya revolve around published comments of Ms. Supinya which suggested that companies partly owned by the family of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra unfairly benefited from the premier’s term in office.
Media and telecommunications giant Shin Corp, under which conglomerate the questioned companies operate, claimed that Supinya’s comments were libelous and had damaged the company’s reputation. The criminal case filed by the company seeks the imprisonment of the media advocate and the executives (the publisher, editor, and one board member) of the Thai Post, while the civil case would slap crippling fines on all defendants. Supinya faces a maximum penalty of 400 million baht ($10 million).
Lawyers for the defendants had anticipated the postponement of the hearings for the civil case. It is a traditional practice of Thai courts to delay the start of proceedings in civil cases, so as to implicitly encourage settlements out of court. At the same time, defense lawyers said the court is clearly conscious of the defense’s stated intent to call no less than 50 witnesses to the criminal case. “If we will be using the same witnesses for the civil case, then the judge would prefer to hear everything during the criminal case first, so as to be more efficient with the court’s time,” Ms. Supinya’s laywer said.
Meanwhile, the judges outlined the legal points they would consider once the civil case starts in earnest. They said that first, Shin Corp. must respond to a legal question raised by Ms. Supinya as to whether the company has the legal personality to sue for libel. Second, the court said the burden would be on the company to prove that Ms. Supinya’s comments were indeed libelous.
In her testimony submitted to the court, Supinya argued that Shin Corp had no legal personality to sue her and other defendants because her remarks to the Thai Post referred to Shin Corp.’s three affiliated companies-telephone operator AIS, satellite service provider IP Star, and television channel iTV-and not to Shin Corp itself. Supinya said Shin Corp. is a mere shareholder in each of these companies, which operate as separate entities.
Supinya meanwhile stressed that her statements were made in good faith, and clearly referred to matters of public interest.
Supinya’s lawyer Nakhon Chompuchat ruled out a possibility of negotiated settlement with the contending parties. “Our position is very clear that we will not back down. It is up to prosecution whether or not they would want to call it quits,” he said.
Present at the hearings last Monday were Roby Alampay, executive director of Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Dr. Ubonrak Siriyuwasak, chairman of Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), and representatives of local rights groups and journalists.
SEAPA is concerned that the Supinya case as indicative of larger trends that loom darkly over the country’s press and freedoms.
“The first problem has to do with criminal libel and criminal defamation laws that have chilling effects on the press,” SEAPA said in an earlier statement. The organization decried the “atrociously disporportionate” claims of Shin Corp, and joined free press advocates around the world in calling for the decriminalization of libel and defamation.
“Meanwhile, this case highlights how more and more interlacing political and business interests are infiltrating and outright buying out the media in the Thailand, thus threatening press independence and government transparency,” SEAPA said.
Noting that several government ministers with substantial business interests have gained control of some of Thailand’s leading media outlets, media experts warned in a forum last week that press freedom in Thailand is vulnerable and is already being weakened.
Darunee Hiranrak, dean of the Communication Arts Faculty at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said the media situation has deteriorated to such a degree that “the government has gone beyond media interference. At issue presently is media domination.”
Aruneeprapa Homsethi, dean of Communication Arts at Sripatum University, said politicians and vested interest groups have managed to co-opt Thailand’s media through their interlacing network of ownerships and investments, and added that these powerful interests clearly “want to skew reports in their favor.”
The academics’ comments were made in a forum that was covered and reported by the Bangkok daily “The Nation”. Simply put, Darunee said “attempts by the government to interfere with editorial content have reached an unprecedented level under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra”.