Thai journalist warns of threat to media freedom

A journalist works in the media centre for the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok on 2 November, 2019. (AFP Photo)

A Thai journalist sentenced to two years in prison for defaming the owner of a poultry farm via a tweet said Thursday the kingdom's criminal libel laws are eviscerating media freedom.

A court convicted Suchanee Cloitre in December for a tweet referencing a dispute over working conditions at a chicken farm owned by the Thammakaset company.

The farm had been at the centre of a labour dispute by Myanmar workers complaining of punishing working hours and conditions.

Thailand's Supreme Court last year ordered the farm's owner Chanchai Pheamphon to pay compensation to the workers.

Chanchai has brought multiple defamation cases against journalists, workers and human rights activists. 

Suchanee, married to a Frenchman and the mother of a nine-month-old boy, was working for Thai television channel Voice TV at the time of posting the tweet and plans to appeal the maximum two-year term imposed by the court.

She is currently out on bail.

"I nearly cried (after the verdict) thinking about the fact that I wouldn't see my son... it makes me totally devastated," she said, adding that freedom of expression in Thailand is retreating. 

"There is a high level of self-censorship in Thailand" among journalists reporting on sensitive topics like human rights and politics, she said.

"When you forbid freedom of expression... you forbid an open society."

Thammakaset owner Chanchai Pheamphon declined to comment on the case when contacted on Thursday.

According to the Thailand Human Rights Lawyers Association, less than five cases were filed in 2012. The number of cases has skyrocketed since, with 40 filed in 2018 alone.

The use of criminal defamation has been "abused", especially by private companies with unlimited financial resources, said association director and lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman, who is assisting with Suchanee's case.

"This is bad for society," she said, urging the offence to be downgraded to a civil issue. – AFP