ARTICLE 19 is concerned about the criminal prosecution of Dr. Chutima Sidasathian, Thai award-winning investigative journalist, who uncovered a community banking scandal implicating a local official in the misappropriation of microcredit funds. The alleged embezzlement has resulted in significant harm to villagers, including financial ruin and three suicides. Ahead of her trial for criminal defamation, scheduled for 6-8 February, we call on the Thai government to urgently decriminalise defamation and replace it with civil law remedies, in line with international freedom of expression standards. All charges against Sidasathian should be immediately dismissed.
Dr. Sidasathian’s investigation began in 2021 after she learned that residents throughout Nakhon Ratchasima Province were experiencing severe problems with the state-run Government Savings Bank (GSB). Villages faced civil court actions brought by the GSB aimed at recovering debts that they allegedly owed after receiving Village Fund loans, but the majority of these villagers – many of them impoverished farming families – reported never receiving these loan monies.
Dr. Sidasathian began posting on Facebook about her investigation in early 2021 to expose the villagers’ financial problems and to provide resources for affected villagers, many of whom faced financial ruin. In response to her posts, the implicated mayor of Banlang in Nakhon Ratchasima Province levelled five criminal defamation lawsuits against Dr. Sidasathian. She faces a total of nine charges and will face trial on 6-8 February 2024 for the first three, which carry penalties of fines and prison sentences of up to two years on each count. In a mediation hearing, the mayor allegedly advised that he would drop the charges if Dr. Sidasathian apologised and paid him. She reportedly rejected the proposal, despite a judge warning that she might face imprisonment as a result.
Defamation is a criminal offence in Thailand under Articles 326 and 328 of the Criminal Code. As ARTICLE 19 highlighted in a submission to Thailand’s last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2021, these provisions are regularly abused by the Thai government to silence and criminalise journalists, human rights defenders, and whistleblowers.
There is a strong and growing body of law in support of the principle that criminal defamation is itself a breach of the right to freedom of expression. For example, the UN Human Rights Committee clarified in its General Comment 34 that imprisonment is never a proportionate response to defamation, and urged states to consider the decriminalisation of defamation. Not only are criminal defamation laws outmoded and unduly harsh, they are also unnecessary and disproportionate measures to protect the reputation of others.
ARTICLE 19 therefore calls on the Thai government to repeal criminal defamation provisions in favour of civil law and other measures. Fully abolishing criminal defamation should be accompanied by a review of civil law on defamation to ensure it fully complies with international freedom of expression standards. The Thai government should also consider introducing additional safeguards to civil law to protect journalists from the misuse of defamation and other laws, in particular against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs).
As criminal defamation constitutes a disproportionate limitation on the right to freedom of expression, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Thai court to dismiss all charges against Dr. Sidasathian.