A group of UN human rights experts* has criticised the use of defamation legislation in Thailand to silence human rights defender Andy Hall and others who report business-related human rights abuses.
Geneva, May 17, 2018.- Since September 2016, Mr. Hall has faced multiple civil and criminal cases for exposing alleged human rights abuses related to the working conditions of migrant workers in several Thai companies.
The UN experts say the case against him is emblematic of the growing number of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) in Thailand, filed by business enterprises seeking to silence legitimate concerns about working conditions in certain industries.
“Worryingly, we are seeing the use of defamation cases as a tool to undermine the legitimate rights and freedoms of communities and rights holders, who are often from some of the most vulnerable groups in society. Criminal defamation charges against human rights defenders serve only to criminalise their legitimate human rights work and may violate their right to freedom of expression,” the experts said.
“The UN Human Rights Committee has made clear that States should consider decriminalising defamation and that, even in the most serious cases, imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty. It is, therefore, critical for the Thai Government to revise its civil and criminal laws as well as prosecution processes to prevent misuse of defamation legislation by companies,” they added.
The Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises conducted an official visit to Thailand between 26 March and 4 April 2018. “During this mission the Working Group raised concerns over defamation cases with the Thai Government and emphasised the need to ensure that relevant authorities engaged with human rights defenders constructively to prevent, mitigate and remedy adverse human rights impacts,” the experts noted.
Mr. Hall was convicted in September 2016 on charges of criminal defamation and offences under the Computer Crime Act, for his work as the primary researcher for a report published by a Finnish NGO, Finnwatch, entitled “Cheap has a high price”, which documented serious allegations of rights violations, including the trafficking of migrant workers, by a Thai food company. He was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 200,000 baht (5,200 euros). The sentence was later reduced by one year, with two years suspended, and the fine reduced to 150,000 baht.
On 26 March 2018, a Bangkok court ordered Mr. Hall to pay 10 million baht (approximately 320,000 USD) in damages to Natural Fruit Co. in a connected civil lawsuit, along with legal and court fees.
Previously, following new defamation accusations against him by Thammakaset Company Ltd, in November 2016, and pending an appeal against his conviction in the Natural Fruit case, Mr. Hall left Thailand, citing unbearable judicial harassment.
The new accusations relate to Mr. Hall’s work assisting 14 migrant workers who had reported exploitative working conditions at the Thammakaset chicken farm. An appeal by the migrant workers to the Supreme Court is pending; however the company has filed criminal charges against the 14 workers for defamation and providing false information to public officials.
“We express serious concern over the possible adverse effect that such use of defamation laws can have on human rights defenders who seek to expose and document human rights violations in Thailand and abroad,” the experts said.
“Business enterprises have a responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts; therefore it is a worrying trend to see businesses file cases against human rights defenders for engaging in legitimate activities,” the experts said.
“The cases filed against Mr. Hall and against workers who complain about abusive working conditions may embolden other companies to file similar civil and criminal defamation cases against human rights defenders and workers, adversely affecting their legitimate and critical work standing up for human rights,” they concluded.