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Defamation law decried

Legislation has had 'chilling effect' on press and activists, expert says

Published on October 16, 2007

Thailand is falling behind neighbours like Cambodia and Indonesia in decriminalising defamation while the Kingdom's press continue to struggle with the "chilling effect" of the criminal law, a legal expert said yesterday.

Toby Mandel, the law programme director at Article 19, a leading not-for-profit global campaign organisation based in London, was speaking at a workshop in Bangkok on criminal defamation law.

"It makes me very sad for Thailand to fall below countries like Cambodia," he said. "Thailand should be on top of the region in terms of freedom of expression."

But Thailand is not and according to Mandel, criminal defamation law, which carries a maximum prison sentence of two years, has been abused by politicians and others to create a "severe chilling effect" that makes journalists and activists think twice before printing or saying anything. The law has emerged as the greatest threat to freedom of expression, Mandel added.

"They will avoid a zone [and go] well around it," Mendel told the participants of the workshop jointly organised by the Press Council, Article 19 and the British Embassy in Bangkok. "[It] affects a much wider range of speech."

Media reform campaigner Supinya Klangnarong admitted that since she fought a painful and taxing criminal defamation battle against Shin Corp, then controlled by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's family, she had become more reluctant to speak freely even though she won the case.

"Self-censorship has actually occurred. It's as if some drug has been injected into my veins and caused me to be careful and not dare to speak. The effect is sinking in deep," said Supinya, adding that since last year's coup the laws have been used against anti-coup activists such as Sombat Boonngam-anong.

Manager Daily's senior editor Tul Sirikulpipat said he was traumatised by three criminal defamation cases filed by three members of the Democrat Party, which led to his personal life being scrutinised and a court order to observe his conduct for two years.

Another journalist, a former editor of the Naew Na daily newspaper, said he might have to go to jail for his unwillingness to reveal the person behind a nom de plume of one column in his paper which landed himself and the paper in a criminal libel case.

As for Tul, he wonders whether the system is just.

"Why do newspapers need to be punished through the criminal court?" Tul said. "If those [criticised] are public figures, we ought not to be tried [in the criminal court]."

Mandel suggested civil society and the media have an obligation to take serious steps to promote the repeal of criminal defamation laws as well as reform of civil defamation laws.

Nevertheless, the lack of public awareness about the issue meant a lot of campaigning was needed to build up public pressure for the eventual abolition of the laws, said Suntareeya Muanpravong, a judge attached to the Office of the Supreme Court President and a researcher on defamation laws.

"Today, the picture [about the problem] and campaign is not clear," she said, adding that all parties needed to pitch in and point out to the public that politicians were likely to further exploit the laws.

Journalists at the workshop said they were reluctant to take the lead as they might be regarded by the public as having a vested interest in having the laws abolished.

Supinya, the secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said the goal may be difficult to achieve. On another front, Thailand's lese majeste law was also restricting freedom of expression.

Supinya asked Mandel how lese majeste was treated in the West and Mandel said it was "uncommon and unknown in democracies".

"I'm a little nervous to give my view on this one, lest I have a problem in leaving the country tomorrow," he added.

Pravit Rojanaphruk

 The Nation

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