Thai media activist says she did not defame Shin Corp.

12 October 2005
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Thai media activist Supinya Klangnarong says she did not defame media and telecom giant Shin Corp when she made comments, published in a local newspaper in 2003 on the company’s rising profit and its relationship with the ruling Thai Rak Thai party.

“I have nothing against Shin Corp. My comments were made in good faith and in line with my duty to warn the public and the state agencies concerned that all regulation issued to supervise the implementation of contracts between state and private telecommunication operators must ensure public interest over the business interest,” Supinya told Bangkok’s Criminal Court in a closing remark of her defense witness testimony on 11 October.

Supinya was sued in July 2004 by Shin Corp., owned and run by the family of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Shin Corp. said Supinya had damaged its reputation when, in an interview with the Thai Post daily, she noted a spike in Shin’s profits coinciding with Thaksin’s rise to power. If found guilty of defamation, the secretary general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform could be sent to prison for at least a year. Shin Corp. is also seeking damages of 400 million baht (US$ 10 million).

Supinya said her comments to the Thai Post had come in response to a journalists’ question about relationships between businesses and politics in Thailand. Supinya also stressed that her comments were based on research and data compiled from several public discourses concerning questions of conflict of interest in the Thaksin administration, research by other well-respected academics on state telecommunication concessions and interwined political and economic interests, and from Shin’s own website and reports.

In any case, the media activist told the court that she did not believe Shin Corp’s reputation or business were even damaged by her remarks. She noted that, based on information obtained from stock experts in the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SEC), Shin Corp has neither reported to the SEC nor warned its shareholders that its reputation or performance might be at stake because of her published comments.

Supinya argued that in effect, Shin Corp’s lawsuit set a climate of fear in the Thai society and had impact on her confidence in performing her duty. “It has created an atmosphere of fear. The media are censoring themselves. Wherever I go, people including academic will say tongue in cheek that they do not want to talk for fear of being sued like me. This affects my confidence,” she said.

The Thai media sees the Supinya case as a crucial test for press freedom and media independence in the Southeast Asian kingdom. International media and press advocates have also been closely monitoring the case. Present at Supinya’s testimony were representatives of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, and Reporters without Borders.

The court’s ruling on Supinya’s case is expected in December.

All observers noted that the filing of defamation suits against media practitioners was becoming a “bad habit” of powerful Thais with intertwining business and political interests. The Thai press has noted a growing number of legal challenges from Thaksin, his government, and private businesses with ties to political leaders over the last year.

On 11 October, Thaksin filed lawsuits against¬† a Thai daily, “Manager Daily”, seeking 500 million baht (12 million dollars) for defamation. The case, filed in both criminal and civil courts, stemmed from comments by a senior Buddhist monk who was critical of Thaksin. The comments were published in the newspaper, founded by media baron Sondhi Limpthongkul on September 28.

A week before, Thaksin filed separate defamation charges against Sondhi and his television co-host Sarocha Pornudomsak for their comments during the “Thailand Weekly” program, also demanding 500 million baht in compensation. The program, produced by Manager Media Group’s sister company Thaiday.com was axed in mid September by¬† the state-controlled but publicly listed company Mass Communication Organisation of Thailand(MCOT) which owns Channel 9.

Thaksin’s chief lawyer Thana Benjathikul said the defamation charges in the earlier case were triggered by Sondhi and Sarocha’s comments during a September 9 program in which they questioned Thaksin’s loyalty to revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.