Thai activist Sutari Vannasiri knew the chicken company had violated labor laws. He went on to share a video on Twitter in 2017 of an interview with an employee, who said he had to work day and night without any days off.
The poultry company filed a defamation and defamation suit against Ms. Although a court found her guilty in 2020, the company did not.
While the case was still pending, her colleague at a human rights organization spoke out for Ms. Sutari on Twitter and Facebook. She also sued for libel and defamation. Now colleague Puttanee Kangkun faces a maximum sentence of 42 years in prison while awaiting sentencing.
These cases exemplify what often happens in Thailand when companies and government officials become dissatisfied with public criticism. Criminal defamation charges follow, in which critics are accused of spreading falsehoods, and defendants are embroiled in lengthy legal battles and face the threat of prison terms.
Powerful figures who know they can use the courts to intimidate, harass and punish critics have taken advantage of what the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights calls “judicial harassment” in Thailand.
Although the poultry company, Thammakaset, was found guilty of labor abuses, it continued to take its critics to court: first, people who spoke out about labor abuses and then those who complained about the company’s measures to silence them. people
Since 2016, Tammakaset has filed 39 cases, mostly criminal defamation cases, against 23 individuals: migrant workers, human rights defenders and journalists. It lost all but one, which was later overturned on appeal.
There are three more to go.
In addition to Ms. Puttanee, Thammakaset is also suing Thailand’s former national human rights commissioner, Angkhana Nilapaijit, and Thanaporn Salipol, the European Union’s press officer in Thailand.
All three women took to social media to criticize their case’s lawsuits. All three are charged with libel and defamation; They are being tried together.
Many Southeast Asian countries have criminal defamation laws, but Thailand stands out. According to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, citizens are “more aggressive” in using the law “to drag people into slow and expensive judicial processes.”of Asia Division.
In addition to the criminal defamation law, there is the Computer Crimes Act, which makes it a crime to upload “false” information that “causes harm to the public”. Another law, protecting the Thai monarchy from criticism, allows ordinary Thais to file complaints for violations.
The UK-based rights watchdog, Article 19, cited statistics provided by Thailand’s judicial authorities showing that public prosecutors and private parties had filed more than 25,000 criminal defamation lawsuits since 2015.
“Business and political elites see this as very effective because the courts are risk-averse; they will accept any case that is absurd,” Mr Robertson said.
Facing calls to address rampant abuse of the courts, the Thai government amended its criminal procedure code in 2018 to make it easier to dismiss cases against defendants who argue they are acting in the public interest. But advocates say little has changed.
Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, a lawyer representing Ms Puttani, Ms Angkhana and Ms Thanaporn, said they had filed an application to get the cases thrown out under this provision, but the court rejected their plea.
Tammakaset’s complaint against three women’s centers alleges Ms. Sutari shared a 2018 video made by Fortify Rights. Mrs. Puttanni works for the organization; Ms. Sutharee and Ms. Thanaporn was used by both.
In their Twitter and Facebook posts, Ms. Puttani, Ms. Ankhana and Ms. Thanaporn expressed their solidarity with activists who were harassed by their caste. Their posts were linked to a Fortify Rights news release and a joint statement with other human rights organizations eventually linked to the video.
In its complaint, Thammakaset cited a video containing an interview with the worker, which describes long hours of work and withholding of passports.
In 2016, Thai authorities ruled that Tamakaset had failed to pay minimum and overtime wages or provide workers with adequate leave. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court order requiring the company to pay nearly $50,000 to a group of 14 employees who filed a labor complaint.
During the trial of the three women in March, Thammakaset owner Chanchai Phimphone told the judge that he had already “paid his dues” to the workers, even though online criticism had hurt his business and his reputation.
She said her children asked her if the family’s money came from “human trafficking, selling slaves.”
“How does a father feel when his children hear this?” said Mr. Chanchai, his voice rising. “I must use my rights to fight. But exercising my rights is seen as a threat, using the law to silence them.
Mr. Chanchai told the court that no one wanted to do business with him anymore. But in March, two rights groups published an investigation into how, after Thammakaset revoked its poultry farming certifications in 2016, a man who shared the same address as Mr Chanchai had set up a new poultry company called Srabua.
Mr. Chanchai denied any knowledge of Srabua.
When asked by a New York Times reporter if he planned to file more lawsuits against the company’s critics, Mr. Chanchai said, “You’re a reporter for a big news organization. If someone said you were a drug dealer, would you fight back?
According to the Thai Human Rights Lawyers Association, criminalizing defamation cases could save Thai taxpayers $3.45 million from 2016 to 2018. Defendants in civil lawsuits can expect to pay large sums of money out of pocket.
During the March hearing, Puttanni, 52, brought a backpack full of clothes to court. It takes two hours each way to travel from her home to court, so every time she attends a hearing, she books a hotel at her own expense.
He said he expects the case to last four years if Tammakaset decides to bring its case to the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Ms. Puttanee considers herself lucky: she has a community that has rallied around her and her lawyers work on her behalf.
“But I still consider it a threat,” he said.
During the hearing, Mr. Chanchai explained how Ms. Puttanna’s Twitter posts defamed his company. His account took five hours; Mrs. Puttanna nodded during her testimony.
Ms Angkhana, a former human rights commissioner, is best known in Thailand for her husband, Somchai Nilapaijit, a human rights lawyer who disappeared in 2004 and whose fate remains unknown.
He said the current lawsuit has taken a toll on his mental health.
“When someone attacks you, it’s a repetitive trauma when you’ve done nothing wrong,” said Ms. Angkhana said. “That’s the real goal of the company — to make you powerless.”
Ms Thanaporn, 29, said it was ironic that she would fall victim to the process of denouncing her fellow activists online by sharing support.
“The fact that I can be sued for this speaks for itself,” he said.