Top: An episode of Thai PBS program ‘Citizen Reporters’ which aired Sept. 1, 2015, drew a defamation complaint against the broadcaster and its reporter for saying their mine contaminated a river in Loei province.
BANGKOK — Wirada Saelim will learn Wednesday whether a 50 million baht defamation suit brought against her and a news agency by a gold mining company will go forward.
The 25-year-old reporter was named as the first defendant along with Thai Public Broadcasting Service and three directors of the public television channel in the criminal suit filed late last year by Tungkum Ltd.
On Tuesday, 14 organizations including the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, Reporters Without Borders and Fortify Rights on Tuesday issued a joint statement calling on Tungkum to withdraw all criminal proceedings against Thai PBS.
The suit was filed after Thai PBS aired a program Wirada hosted in September 2015. One sentence in the report linked the contamination of a river in Loei province to a Tungkum-operated mine.
“These six villages in Tambon Khao Luang of Wang Saphung district are environmentally affected by the gold mining industry,” was the sentence Tungkum alleged to be defamatory. “The Huay River has been contaminated and cannot be used for drinking or household consumption.”
The investigative news piece was produced by 15-year-old citizen journalist Wanpen Khunna and her friends.
Tungkum, a subsidiary of mining and property development firm Tongkah Harbour Ltd., filed suit two months later against the 15-year-old girl who narrated the report. Thai PBS, the broadcaster, was charged with criminal defamation and online defamation under the Computer Crime Act for uploading the segment to YouTube.
The company relied on Article 14 of the 2007 Computer Crime Act, a controversial provision criticized for being misused other than originally intended as a tool against online scams.
Critics such as the Thai Netizen Network, say the law is too vague and attracts abuse because its penalties – five years in jail and/or a 200,000 baht fine – are even harsher than existing defamation law under the Criminal Code.
“They live there and learned from their parents that the river used to be drinkable, and now it is not. So that’s a fact for them.”
Defamation is a criminal offense in Thailand, where the courts do not accept truth as an absolute defense. Corporations have been emboldened to go after whistleblowers by the prosecution of Andy Hall, a worker rights activist who left the country earlier this month, citing harassment.
In its complaint, the gold-mining company said the Huay River was free of pollution and doesn’t even run past its mine. Over the years it has brought more than a dozen suits against community members opposed to its operations in Loei.
Wirada, host of the “Citizen Reporters” program, said although the program was one-sided, its purpose was to provide a platform for communities to tell stories from their perspective.
“They were stakeholders,” she said Tuesday, referring to the young journalists who produced the segment. “They live there and learned from their parents that the river used to be drinkable, and now it is not. So that’s a fact for them.”
If the court accepts the case tomorrow, Wirada worries it will damage the space to support watchdogs through platforms such as her program.
In the statement issued Tuesday calling for the case to be dropped, rights organizations said the military government should see it as an example and take action to protect press freedom, decriminalize defamation and amend the controversial Computer Crime Act.
“We remain concerned about the use of criminal defamation laws and the Computer-related Crime Act to restrict the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Thailand as well as to intimidate human rights defenders and journalists,” the statement read.
The mining company has filed two suits against Wanpen, the 15-year-old whistleblower. A case filed locally in Loei province was dismissed by the juvenile court; the other in Bangkok is moving forward.
The Bangkok Criminal Court will rule Wednesday on whether it will accept the complaint against Wirada, Thai PBS and its management.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the name of the Thai PBS program as “Citizen Journalists.” In fact it was “Citizen Reporters.”