Thai reporter, Chutima Sidasathian, has dedicated herself to reporting on corruption and the plights of rural communities and refugees. This dedication comes despite repeated attempts to silence her through intimidation and legal attacks.
In a recent interview with Media Defence, Sidasathian reflects on the dangers of reporting on these critical issues and the challenges posed to journalists by criminal defamation laws. She discusses what motivates her to persist despite these threats and how she envisions change for the future.
A fraught freedom of expression landscape
Thailand’s restrictive political environment continues to impose legal sanctions for criticising the military-backed government. Criminal defamation laws and legislation such as the Computer Crime Act, which curtails online speech and enforces surveillance, are often used to silence dissenting voices.
“When I first became a target of criminal defamation and computer crimes accusations that threatened my freedom, I realised that Thailand’s justice system… can be twisted to silence those who have good in their hearts.”
Reporting on corruption and human trafficking
When working for the English-language news site Phuketwan, Sidasathian, reported on the alleged involvement of Thai naval officers in the trafficking of stateless Rohingya migrants. Sidasathian emphasised the dangers involved with investigating these allegations:
“Reporting on human trafficking in Thailand was clearly dangerous. Trading in living human beings is about as corrupt as it gets. I remember finding a camp where victims of trafficking were being held and being led into the jungle by an activist guide to see it for myself. When he said: ”There are armed guards. Follow me, stick among the trees and stay low” I realised for the first time that I could get into serious trouble. Later I would receive intimidating calls, people yelling at me down the phone, even images of guns sent to me anonymously”.
Reflecting on these tangible risks for journalists reporting on human rights abuses in Thailand, Sidasathian noted that these challenges are frequently compounded by legal harassment of those seeking to hold power to account for such violations.
In 2015, Sidasathian, was charged with defamation under Thailand’s Computer Crime Act, along with her editor Alan Morison. The charges were brought by senior naval officers who sought to protect the Navy’s reputation following the allegations made by Sidasathian and Morison. Although Sidasthian and Morison were eventually acquitted of charges they faced in 2015, Sidasathian continues to face criminal charges aimed at silencing her reporting.
Speaking up for rural farming communities
In early 2021, Sidasathian posted on her Facebook page about farmers in the province of Nakhorn Ratchasima, commonly referred to as Korat. The farmers were indebted to the local government after receiving money through a lending scheme. She had found evidence that the scheme was used to divert funds illegally. Sidasathian’s Facebook posts document and criticise the local government’s involvement in the banking crisis.
Despite previous legal threats, Sidasathian remained committed to her role as a voice for those oppressed by corruption:
“Once I began talking to villagers who said they had been deceived and ripped off, I thought: ”What would I do if it happened like this to me?” Without the ability to respond, without the money to deal with it, I would be powerless. As someone who broke out of the cycle of poor education, I knew I had to help these people to seek justice.”
Once again Sidasthian faced charges for her reporting. The Mayor of the district filed an application against Sidasathian for criminal defamation in relation to three Facebook posts. In these posts she had criticised the mayor’s administration. This included his involvement in the banking scandal and the effect that had on local villagers from sixteen villages.
Public prosecutors took the case forward. In December 2022 Sidasthian was charged with three counts of defamation, each carrying a two-year sentence, and was briefly detained.
Ongoing legal proceedings
The trial for these charges took place took place 6-8th Feb, 2024 at the Nakorn Ratchasima Province court. The Korat judge delivers a verdict on March 6. Meanwhile, Sidasthian is awaiting a decision from the prosecutor on whether six additional criminal defamation charges will go forward.
In October 2023 the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand found that the criminal defamation case against Sidasathian constituted a SLAPP. Prior to the trial, the government also set up a Special Commission of Investigation into the alleged community banking scandal.
Furthermore, Sidasathian’s defamation trial comes while the mayor is reportedly himself facing criminal charges of misappropriation of funds based on the claims Sidasathian made in her Facebook posts.
Media Defence’s support
Media Defence supported Sidasathian’s legal defence in both the 2015 case and the more recent cases. We see it as emblematic of the potential abuse of criminal defamation laws by those in positions of power, to intimidate and silence independent journalists exposing corruption and investigating public interest stories in the country. The threat of a potential criminal conviction and sentence against Sidasathian will inevitably create a chilling effect. It could also promote self-censorship by other journalists when it comes to reporting on matters of public importance.
Improving the situation for Thai journalists reporting on corruption
In the face of ongoing legal challenges, Sidasathian sees an opportunity. She hopes to expose the unjust use of criminal defamation laws and call for their removal:
“I am hoping that with my second time as a ‘criminal,’ I can conclusively demonstrate the injustice of Thailand’s criminal defamation laws. Those laws should be repealed.”
Sidasathian notes that these laws in Thailand serve to restrict journalists, activists and citizens who stand for their fundamental rights. She believes that encouraging people to speak out against corruption without the fear of legal repercussions would lead to a more just and progressive society:
“Engaging in legal action against journalists or citizens who advocate for the public interest is a lose-lose situation for everyone. It prevents society from progressing as it should.”
She emphasises that civil defamation laws can still be used to protect reputational damage, similar to practices in other countries.
Hope for change
Despite facing personal risks and legal battles, Sidasathian remains inspired by her commitment to exposing corruption. She shares her vision for protecting freedom of expression in Thailand:
“I see my country, as a much better country if the poor are treated fairly and honourably. What we all truly deserve is mutual respect, shared smiles, laughter without any oppression or control from those in power.”
If you’re a journalist, citizen journalist or blogger under threat for your reporting, we can help.
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