(New York) – Prosecutors in Thailand should immediately withdraw the criminal defamation cases brought by Thammakaset Company Ltd. against three prominent human rights defenders for their support of other activists facing criminal charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai government should act to repeal criminal defamation provisions and introduce strong safeguards to prevent the use of frivolous, vexatious, or malicious legal actions that would have chilling effects on free speech.
On March 14, 2023, the Bangkok South Criminal Court began the trial that involves 28 counts of alleged criminal defamation under Thailand’s Criminal Code sections 326 and 328. The charges stem from posts or re-posts on social media by Angkhana Neelapaijit, Puttanee Kangkun, and Thanaporn Saleephol expressing solidarity with other human rights defenders already facing lawsuits brought by Thammakaset for alleging labor rights abuses at the company’s chicken farm in Lopburi Province. The company has filed at least 37 civil and criminal cases against rights defenders, journalists, and workers since 2016.
“The Thai authorities should not help companies use criminal defamation or other legal avenues to silence workers from filing complaints about their working conditions or human rights defenders or journalists for reporting about alleged abuses at the company,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The charges against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn should be immediately dropped, and Thai authorities should act to prevent similar cases from being filed in the future.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has stated in its General Comment No. 34 on freedom of expression that governments “should put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right to freedom of expression, including persons who engage in the gathering and analysis of information on the human rights situation who publish human rights-related reports.”
On December 16, 2022, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights urged Thai authorities to take action to stop the Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuits increasingly used by Thai companies 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 a clear example of businesses abusing the legal system in order to censor, intimidate, and silence criticism through SLAPPs as a method of judicial harassment.”
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has repeatedly emphasized the importance of companies respecting human rights in their operations and upholding the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In October 2019, Thailand was the first country in Asia to announce a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, committing to protect human rights defenders and prevent judicial harassment. But the charges against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn, as well as the failure to assist those still facing many of the other civil and criminal cases filed by Thammakaset, stand in stark contradiction to the Thai government’s pledges to take action to protect rights, Human Rights Watch said.
In 2018, the National Assembly amended the Criminal Procedure Code to prevent the misuse of criminal cases. While that is a useful step, the Thai government should repeal all criminal defamation provisions. Neither prosecutors nor courts in Thailand have actually carried out, much less considered, amended section 161/1, which allows judges to dismiss and forbid the refiling of a criminal complaint by a private individual if the complaint is filed “in bad faith or with misrepresentation of facts to harass or take advantage of a defendant.” Furthermore, section 165/2 allows the presentation of evidence to show that the complaint “lacks merit.”
These reform provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code remain unused and untested, though. It is also crucial to provide prosecutors with adequate resources and support to exercise their powers under section 21 of the 2010 Public Prosecutor Organ and Public Prosecutors Act to screen out frivolous cases.
Human Rights Watch, along with an increasing number of governments and international agencies, has consistently called for the repeal of criminal defamation laws because they are an inherently disproportionate punishment for expressions of speech judged to damage reputations. Civil defamation laws, when supplemented by strong anti-SLAPP safeguards, balance the need for fair reporting in the public interest with concerns about reputational harm to private actors. In addition, as the charges against Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn show, criminal defamation laws in Thailand are easily abused and can have adverse impacts on free expression in the public interest.
Thailand should enact comprehensive anti-SLAPP legislation to strengthen safeguards to protect freedom of speech and expression and prevent retaliation against workers, human rights defenders, and journalists, Human Rights Watch said.
The UN special rapporteur on rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association recommended that “States should protect and facilitate the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association to ensure that these rights are enjoyed by everyone” including by “enacting anti-SLAPPs legislation, allowing an early dismissal (with an award of costs) of such suits and the use of measures to penalize abuse.”
“The UN and governments from around the world should share with Thailand their reform efforts to strengthen anti-SLAPP protections and point out that criminal defamation laws coupled with the absence of strong anti-SLAPP protections impede the ability of businesses to conduct essential human rights and environmental due diligence,” Pearson said. “Unless the Thai government moves now to protect Angkhana, Puttanee, and Thanaporn from retaliation, the promises that Thai officials made on business and human rights will ring hollow.”