By Shawn Crispin
The Standard of Hong Kong
October 5, 2005
Freedom of expression is on trial in the young democracy of Thailand, where state agencies, politicians and politically connected businesses have targeted the news media with an alarming string of criminal and civil court actions that seek prison terms and exorbitant monetary damages.
The first, crucial test is being heard now in a Bangkok courtroom. On one side is the Shin Corp, the profitable communications conglomerate founded by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and majority-owned by his family. On the other is Supinya Klangnarong, a 31-year-old activist focused on media reform issues.
In October 2003, the Shin Corp filed criminal defamation charges against Supinya for comments she made in the Thai-language press. Her alleged crime: noting that the Shin Corp's profits had more than tripled since Thaksin took office, and hinting at a possible conflict of interest between the premier's public duties and his family's private interests.
The Shin Corp claims that Supinya's comments hurt investor perceptions about the company and damaged its public image. The criminal charge carries a possible two-year prison term. The company is also pursuing the equivalent of US$10 million (HK$78 million) in a civil suit against the young activist, who earns a US$200 monthly salary from the small advocacy outfit she runs.
As a Thailand-based journalist and consultant with the Committee to Protect Journalists, I testified as a defense witness in the trial. My testimony highlighted the plain fact that Thailand's constitution guarantees freedom of expression, providing legal grounds to air opinions about public figures and public companies. As if emphasizing the deteriorating press climate, though, the judge warned that I, too, could be charged with criminal libel for a 2003 article I wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, which also examined conflict-of-interest allegations surrounding the prime minister.
There is regional precedent for using the courts to cow in-depth journalism, most visibly in authoritarian regimes in Malaysia and Singapore, where the mainstream press acts more as lapdog than watchdog. Although Thailand is formally obliged to guarantee freedom of expression as a 1997 party to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, many fear that Thaksin, who took office in 2001, is taking Thailand down a similarly repressive track.
Politicians and companies seem to have taken a cue from Shin Corp in recent weeks. Picnic Corp, a company owned by the family of former deputy commerce minister Suriya Lapwisuthisin, filed criminal and civil charges in July against two newspapers owned by the Matichon Publishing Group over reports of alleged accounting fraud at the company. Picnic Corp is requesting a whopping US$240 million in damages in one of the complaints.
Last month, two government agencies, the Airports Authority of Thailand and the New Bangkok International Airport, filed a criminal defamation complaint against the Bangkok Post and its editor for an erroneous story that said foreign experts had been summoned to inspect cracks in a runway of the new airport. The English-language daily retracted the story and apologized, but two senior editors lost their jobs due to government pressure. The agencies, which have indicated they will also seek the equivalent of US$25 million in civil damages, say the story damaged Thailand's international reputation.
These cases pose a much graver risk. The future of the country's once-vibrant, now-dimming democracy is at stake. Free speech and press freedom guarantees are enshrined, but not explicitly defined, in the country's progressive 1997 constitution and Thailand's libel laws are notoriously arbitrary and vague.
The case against Supinya has put the burden of proof on the defendant, a bizarre derogation from the widely accepted principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty.
Journalists and editors say that, in light of the criminal case against Supinya, they have already exerted self- censorship in covering the Shinawatra family's expanding business interests.
The case has effectively taken Supinya's critical opinions out of circulation as well. Her lawyers have advised her to steer clear of public comments about Thaksin or the Shin Corp until a verdict is handed down later this year.
But the David-and-Goliath profile of Supinya's case has also captured the national imagination, prompting a series of well-attended fundraising events for her legal defense, and providing a potent rallying point for pro-democracy advocates. It is not yet clear that Thaksin's formidable political power has undermined the independence of Thailand's judiciary.
And, so, Thailand's criminal court faces a landmark decision. A ruling against Supinya would demonstrate that Thailand has lost faith in its commitment to international standards for freedom of expression, and it would set a chilling precedent for the other criminal cases recently filed against journalists. A ruling in her favor would be a vital step in reaffirming free expression. For democracy's sake, may justice prevail.
Shawn Crispin is a freelance journalist and the Asia program consultant to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists