BANGKOK”•A British journalist with the BBC faces up to five years in a Thai jail after a lawyer brought a criminal defamation case against him over an investigation into fraud on a popular tourist island.
Rights groups say the case exposes how Thailand’s broad defamation and computer crime laws scupper investigative journalism and make it difficult to expose wrongdoing in a country where corruption is endemic.
The prosecution was sparked by a September 2015 report by Jonathan Head, the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, looking at how two foreign retirees were scammed out of their properties in Phuket.
Head appeared in a Phuket court on Thursday alongside one of the retirees, British national Ian Rance who is a joint defendant in the prosecution. Both pleaded not guilty.
The man bringing the prosecution is Pratuan Thanarak, a Phuket lawyer who featured in the BBC’s report looking at how Rance lost lucrative properties.
Rance retired to Phuket in 2001, married a local woman with whom he had three children and bought what he said were some $1.2 million worth of properties.
Under Thai law foreigners cannot own land. But many get around that provision by placing properties in the name of a company they own or with locals they trust.
In 2010 Rance discovered his wife had forged his signature to remove him as director and sell the properties with the help of a network of money lenders and property agents on the island.
She was jailed for four years over the scam.
The BBC’s Head reported that Pratuan, the lawyer, admitted to notarizing Rance’s signature without him being present.
Pratuan filed a defamation case alleging the reports caused him to be “defamed, insulted or hated”, according to a copy of the complaint seen by AFP.
Rance and Head face one charge of criminal defamation, which carries up to two years in jail. Head faces an additional charge under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, which has a five year maximum jail penalty.
Head has had to surrender his passport to the court leaving him unable to work across Asia as he fights what could be a two year court battle.
In a statement the BBC said it “stands by its journalism” and that they “intend to clear the name of our correspondent”.
Unlike most countries where defamation is a civil crime, in Thailand it is a criminal offense.
Private citizens can launch their own cases and they are not forced to pay costs if they lose.
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said the case against Head and Rance showed “exactly why having criminal defamation laws is such a bad idea”, adding the powerful can “engage in game of legal blood sport by dragging people through the Thai court system”.
Writers often find themselves on the receiving end of costly suits.
Local news site Phuketwan spent years defending itself from a suit filed by Thailand’s navy after it alleged official complicity in human trafficking.
The site eventually won in 2015 but had to close down because funds were exhausted.
Andrew Drummond, a British journalist who spent years writing about Thailand’s criminal underworld, left the country the same year after a slew of defamation cases and threats were made against him by people he exposed.
British rights activist Andy Hall also left Thailand in 2016 after multiple defamation cases were filed against him — both by prosecutors and private citizens — over a report he helped research highlighting abuses in the country’s lucrative fruit export sector.