Fortify Rights: Journalists back on trial for defamation of mining company

News release by Fortify Rights

BANGKOK —Thailand’s Appeal Court decided yesterday to overturn an earlier decision by the Criminal Court to dismiss a criminal-defamation complaint brought by a Thai mining company against Thai Public Broadcast Services (Thai PBS) and four journalists. Controversial mining company Tungkum Limited filed the original complaint against Thai PBS and its journalists in response to a news report that alleged that the company’s open-pit gold mine caused adverse environmental impacts in Loei Province, northeast Thailand.

Sutharee Wannasiri, Thailand Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights, said:

This is a dark day for press freedom in Thailand. The court’s decision demonstrates the Thai Government is not fully committed to upholding its obligations under international law to protect freedom of expression.

The complaint should never have been brought in the first place. Journalists shouldn’t be criminally prosecuted for carrying out their duty to report on matters of public interest, including on potential environmental and health impacts of business activities. Today’s decision sends a worrying signal to journalists in Thailand that they are still at risk of imprisonment simply for carrying out their job.

Thai authorities and business enterprises should immediately drop all criminal complaints against journalists and others for doing their job. Until the Thai government takes concrete steps to decriminalize defamation, it’s commitment to uphold human rights is otherwise nothing but empty rhetoric.”

Background

On November 12, 2015, Tungkum Ltd., a Thai-registered gold mining company operating in Loei Province, northeast Thailand, filed complaints against Thai PBS and journalists Ms. Wirada Saelim, Mr. Somchai Suwanbun, Mr. Korkhet Chanthalerdlaks, and Mr. Yothin Sitthibordeekul, alleging violations under Sections 326 and 328 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, Sections 14 and 16 of the 2007 Computer-related Crimes Act, and other laws. The complaint relates to a citizen-journalist news clip about a youth camp involved in raising awareness of environmental issues in Wang Sa Pung District, Loei Province. In the clip, a 15-year-old schoolgirl from a village located near a Tungkum Ltd. mine alleged that villages in the area had been “environmentally affected by the gold mining industry.” Tungkum Ltd. demanded 50 million Thai Baht (US$ 1.4 million) in compensation for damage to reputation.

On November 16, 2016, the Criminal Court in Bangkok dismissed the complaint against Thai PBS and its journalists, finding the complaint lacked merit because Thai PBS and its journalists acted professionally and relied on credible sources, including government agencies and local villagers.

The Appeal Court disagreed, finding that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with charges under Sections 326 and 328 of the Thai Criminal Code, but not Articles 14 and 16 of the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. The case will proceed to trial on May 21, 2018. If convicted, the four journalists face a sentence of up to two-years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 200,000 Thai Baht (US $5,600).

Freedom of expression and press freedom are guaranteed under Section 34 and 35 of the 2017 Thai Constitution and under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party. Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression are permissible only when provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. Imprisonment for defamation is a disproportionate punishment that infringes on the right to freedom of expression.

For more information, please contact:

Sutharee Wannasiri, Thailand Human Rights Specialist, Fortify Rights (in Thailand), +66.61.545.0524 (Thai/English);
Email: Sutharee.wannasiri@fortifyrights.org
Twitter: @SuthareeW@FortifyRights

Amy Smith, Executive Director, +66 (0) 87.795.5454 (Thailand),
Email: amy.smith@fortifyrights.org
Twitter: @AmyAlexSmith@FortifyRights