Thai reporter sentenced to jail in Thammakaset libel case

Yesterday (24 December), the Lop Buri Provincial Court sentenced former Voice TV reporter Suchanee Cloitre to two years in prison in a libel case filed against her by the Thammakaset Company.

Suchanee Cloitre (Source: National Union of Journalists Thailand)

The company, a supplier of poultry to the agribusiness company Betagro, launched the libel lawsuit against Suchanee after she posted a tweet about the defamation case that the company filed against immigrant workers who had filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC), claiming mistreatment by the company.

The workers’ complaint said that they had been forced to work up to 20 hours per day without a day off for 40 or more consecutive days, that they had been paid less than the minimum wage, were not paid for overtime, and that they had their freedom of movement restricted and their identity documents confiscated.

Starting in 2016, the Thammakaset Company sued them for defamation, claiming that their complaint damaged the company’s interests. 

In September 2017, Suchanee retweeted a message from former Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) advisor Andy Hall, adding a comment which said that the court ordered the Lop Buri chicken farm owner to pay compensation for the 14 immigrant workers “for using slave labour.”

Yesterday’s ruling said that Suchanee’s post is considered defamation, as the phrase “slave labour” did not appear in Hall’s post and the court ruling he attached to his post. It is therefore considered damaging to the company.  Because the court believed that Suchanee posted her tweet without considering the damage it could cause to the company, and that she had not checked whether her message was accurate, the court considered Suchanee’s action not in good faith. She was therefore sentenced to two years in prison according to Section 328 of the Criminal Code. 

Suchanee has been released on a 75,000-baht bail. Her lawyer, Waraporn Uthairangsee, said that they will be filing an appeal.  

From 2016 to May 2019, the Thammakaset Company filed complaints with the police, the Criminal Court, and the Civil Court against at least 22 individuals in 14 cases, including defamation complaints against human rights defender and former Thailand human rights specialist with Fortify Rights Sutharee Wannasiri, Mahidol University lecturer Ngamsuk Rattanasatien, and former National Human Rights Commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit.

Criminal defamation carries a maximum sentence of one year’s imprisonment, a fine of up to 20,000 baht, or both, under Section 326 of the Thai Criminal Code. Defamation “by means of publication” is criminalized under Section 328 and carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 200,00 baht.

A 2018 report by the United Nations Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises raised concerns over the increase in attacks on those who speak up against corporate impact on human rights and shrinking civic space, and called for businesses to not use criminal and defamation laws and to avoid strategic lawsuits against public participation (“SLAPPs”) to silence human rights defenders.

A team of UN experts from the Working Group on Business and Human Rights also visited Thailand in April 2018, and at the end of their 10-day visit presented their preliminary observations on steps that should be taken by the Royal Thai Government and businesses to improve corporate respect for human rights and to strengthen access to effective remedies. 

“One critical challenge for Thailand will be to end recurring attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, union leaders and community representatives who speak out against business-related human rights abuse,” the experts said. “More must be done to protect civic space, including protecting human rights defenders against civil and criminal defamation law suits filed by companies to silence those who stand up for the victims of abuse."