A Bangkok-based BBC News correspondent is being sued in Thailand over an investigative report about the alleged defrauding of two Western expats, who had invested in properties on Phuket island, according to a Thai news website.
A pretrial hearing into the case against BBC reporter Jonathan Head was scheduled for Monday at the Phuket provincial court, the website Khaosod English reported.
Head is being taken to court over allegations of criminal defamation and violating the country’s Computer Crimes Act (CCA), Khaosod said, noting he could face up to nine year in prison, if convicted.
The plaintiff in the case is Phuket lawyer Pratuan Thanarak who, according to Khaosod, appears in a 10-minute BBC News segment narrated by Head, which aired in September.
The TV report itself did not identify the Thai lawyer by name, but it featured an interview at the office of a lawyer who allegedly had notarized the forged signature of one of the Western expats.
One of them, Briton Ian Rance, alleged in the BBC segment that his ex-Thai wife – who is now reportedly in a Thai jail and with whom he had three children – had colluded with others to defraud him. Rance alleged she had forged his signature on documents that authorized the transfer of properties that he owned on Phuket, a top destination for Western retirees.
In the BBC report, Head quoted the lawyer as saying that it was common practice for Thai lawyers to notarize signatures without the signer actually present.
Head, who just stepped aside as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok, declined an interview request from the Thai website.
“I will not comment at this stage because I have not yet been indicted,” he told Khaosod.
The BBC also issued a statement.
“The BBC stands by the high standards of its journalism. As this is now a legal matter, there will be no further comment,” the British broadcaster said, according to Khaosod.
Head was not expected to appear in the Phuket court on Monday.
The courthouse in the southern province was the site of another high-profile court case last year, in which the Royal Thai Navy sued a pair of Phuket-based journalists over similar charges, following a report that their website had published about the smuggling of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar.
The two journalists, who were editors of the now defunct Phuketwan website, were sued for reprinting an excerpt from a controversial report by the Reuters news agency on the issue of human trafficking.
In a phone interview from Australia, Phuketwan founder Alan Morison called on the Thai attorney-general’s office to drop the case against Head.
“As a Phuket judge determined last year after hearing expert testimony in the Phuketwan case, the Computer Crimes Act is intended for use against computer hackers and database thieves, not journalists,” Morison told BenarNews.
In September, Morison and fellow Phuketwan editor Chutima Sidasathian were acquitted of charges of defamation and violating the CCA.
“Criminal defamation should only be used against people who misuse civil defamation laws. Jonathan Head is a widely respected professional journalist and his reporting always reveals matters of public interest,” Morison added.