thailand drop charges against rights defenders
Last updated on September 20th, 2023 at 10:59 am
The criminal defamation cases brought by Thammakaset Company Limited should be immediately withdrawn by the Thai prosecutor. Human Rights Watch today condemned the actions of three prominent human rights defenders who supported other activists facing criminal charges. To protect free speech, the Thai government needs to repeal criminal defamation provisions and introduce strong safeguards to prevent frivolous, vexatious, or malicious legal actions.
The Bangkok South Criminal Court opened the trial on March 14, 2023, for Angkhana Neelapaijit, Puttanee Kangkun, and Thanaporn Saleephol. These defendants are facing 28 counts of criminal defamation following Sections 326 and 328 of Thailand’s Criminal Code. The accused re-posted messages to social media in support of individuals who had previously reported labor rights violations at Thammakaset’s poultry farm in Lopburi Province. Since 2016, Thammakaset has initiated 37 civil or criminal suits against human rights activists, reporters, and laborers.
Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the Thai authorities should not assist companies in using criminal defamation or other legal avenues to silence workers who complain about working conditions or human rights defenders or journalists who report alleged abuses at the company. Thai authorities should act immediately to prevent similar cases from being filed in the future, and the charges against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn should be dropped immediately.
A General Comment No. 34 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee states that governments should “take effective measures to safeguard freedom of expression against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression, including those who conduct research on human rights issues and publish reports about those issues.”
The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights urged Thai authorities to stop using Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits to intimidate reporters and human rights advocates.
The Working Group specifically mentioned Thammakaset, stating that: “The cases filed by companies, such as Thammakaset Company Limited, against human rights defenders are clear examples of businesses abusing the legal system to silence, censor, and intimidate criticism through SLAPPs as a method of judicial harassment.”
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has continually stressed the need for companies to observe human rights throughout their business practices and to abide by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In October 2019, Thailand was the first Asian nation to announce a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, promising to defend human rights defenders and avert judicial harassment. Nevertheless, the accusations against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn, along with the lack of assistance given to those still undergoing intimidating civil and criminal proceedings from Thammakaset, stands as an apparent divergence from Thailand’s pledges to protect rights, said Human Rights Watch.
In 2018, the National Assembly took a positive step in amending the Criminal Procedure Code to avoid the exploitation of criminal cases. Nevertheless, if Thailand genuinely desires to tackle this problem, it should go a step further and abolish all criminal defamation provisions. Despite amended section 161/1 allowing judges to reject and prevent refiling of a complaint filed “in bad faith or with misrepresentation of facts to harass or take advantage of a defendant,” courts and prosecutors have not enforced it yet. In addition, they could also make use of section 165/2 to identify that the charge is groundless.
The code of Criminal Procedure remains unused and unenforceable though. In addition, prosecutors should be given adequate resources and support to screen out frivolous cases under section 21 of the 2010 Public Prosecutor Organ and Public Prosecutors Act.
Human Rights Watch, joined by an ever-growing number of nations and global bureaus, has constantly demanded the repeal of criminal defamation statutes because they are an absurdly disproportionate response to any speech deemed to cause reputational harm. Civil defamation laws, combined with strong anti-SLAPP measures, can balance the requirement for impartial coverage on matters of public interest with concerns related to harm created to personal entities. Furthermore, as we can observe in the instance of Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn’s charges, criminal defamation laws in Thailand can be easily taken advantage of and backfire on free expression in such situations.
Human Rights Watch called on Thailand to enact comprehensive anti-SLAPP legislation to strengthen safeguards to protect freedom of speech and expression, as well as prevent retaliation against workers, human rights defenders, and journalists.
In his report, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association recommended that “States safeguard and facilitate freedom of expression, assembly, and association to ensure that these rights are enjoyed by everyone” by enacting anti-SLAPP legislation, allowing early dismissals (with costs awarded) of such suits, and penalizing abuse.
The UN and governments worldwide should impart their reform initiatives to Thailand to strengthen protection measures against SLAPP, and highlight that criminal defamation statutes combined with the lack of strong anti-SLAPP laws impede companies’ capacity to undertake necessary human rights and environmental investigations. Unless the Thai government takes action immediately to safeguard Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn from retribution, this will make it clear that promises made by Thai representatives on business and human rights were false.