Thailand: BBC Journalist, British Expat Plead Not Guilty to Defamation

BenarNews staff
2017.02.23
Bangkok
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170223-TH-head-620.jpg BBC correspondent Jonathan Head speaks to attendees during an event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok, March 11, 2016.
BenarNews

Updated at 1:35 a.m. ET on 2017-02-24

A Bangkok-based British correspondent for BBC News pleaded not guilty Thursday to criminal defamation stemming from his report about a man losing his property on Phuket island through alleged fraud.

Southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head faces a defamation charge brought against him by Thai lawyer Pratuan Thanarak, who appeared in a BBC TV segment narrated by Head that aired in September 2015, along with a charge under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act.

If convicted of both charges, Head could face up to seven years in prison. Unlike most countries where defamation is a civil offense, people in Thailand can file criminal defamation charges.

Head’s co-defendant, Briton Ian Rance, the former director of a property company for foreign retirees, was charged with criminal defamation and faces up to two years behind bars.

“We have done nothing wrong and yet I am the one in court, prosecuted by a private individual, far away from where I now live for the sake of safety, in a court in a province where I do not feel safe, and on a criminal charge that has a prison term,” Rance told BenarNews.

Head and Rance appeared in a Phuket court on Thursday.

“We certainly pleaded not guilty,” Rance said. “It must be remembered that I came to Thailand with a substantial investment, a foreign investor in fact.”

Head told BenarNews he could not comment on the case, but his news organization issued a statement in support of his report.

“The BBC stands by its journalism and we will fight the allegations made against our correspondent by these proceedings. We have full faith in the Thai justice system, and we intend to clear the name of our correspondent. We will not be making any further statements at this time,” said the statement made available to the media.

Co-defendant’s story

In 2001, Ian Rance married a Thai woman named Suda and they had three children, according to the BBC report, a 10-minute news segment that aired in September 2015. The report quoted Pratuan but did not identify the lawyer by name.

Then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had started a program called “Thailand Elite,” to attract wealthy foreigners to settle by allowing them to own small parcels. Because Thailand normally does not allow foreign expats to own land, many set up companies or marry local women.

Rance told BenarNews he owned two businesses, the family home and another house he planned to expand for his family. He said his then-wife forged a document that enabled her to remove him as company director and sell his properties.

The fraud against him involved several people, and the attorney Pratuan was not central to it, Rance said.

“But rather through his profession as a lawyer, by verifying forged documents as true, [this] allowed the Business Registration Office in Phuket to remove me as director of the company and remove my ability to protect and recover the assets stolen from the company by the fraudster and laundered through the right of redemption,” he said.

“All those businesses were stolen through fraud and assets stripped to money lenders at fire sale prices,” Rance added.

‘A bad idea’

On Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the charges brought against the two Britons in Thailand.

“This is the kind of case that shows exactly why having criminal defamation laws is such a bad idea. The threat to lock someone away for what they said, or in this case, reported in the media is far too easily abused by those with time and money to engage in game of legal blood sport by dragging people through the Thai court system,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said in a statement.

“Thailand should also move to immediately revise the Computer Crimes Act to bring it into compliance with the government’s obligations to protect freedom of expression under the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights that Thailand has ratified.”

Also on Thursday, the Thai Supreme Court reduced the sentence of the editor of an anti-junta magazine, Voice of Thaksin for violating Lese-Majeste, Thailand’s notorious royal defamation law.

It imposes harsh penalties on people who are prosecuted and convicted for publishing or airing content perceived as critical of the monarchy, and arrests and prosecutions of such cases have proliferated under the junta, which seized power in May 2014.

Editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who has been in prison for nearly six years for defaming the royals, saw his sentence reduced from 10 years to six because he had spent sufficient time locked up, according to his lawyer, Wasan Panich.

An earlier version of this report contained inaccuracies.

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