PHUKET – BBC’s south-east Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, could face up to five years in a Thai jail after a lawyer brought a criminal defamation case against him over an investigation into two Western expats allegedly defrauded of their investments.
The case exposes how Thailand’s defamation and computer crime laws scupper investigative journalism and make it difficult to expose wrongdoing in an endemically corrupt country.
The suit against Jonathan was brought forward by lawyer, Pratuan Thanarak, on charges of defamation and violating the Computer Crimes Act by spreading false allegations about his alleged role in the fraud scheme against two expats in Phuket.
The center of the criminal complaint is Head’s coverage of the lawyer’s alleged role faking the signatures of two men, Ian Rance and Colin Vard, a Briton and Irishman, who had both settled in Phuket and were systematically defrauded between 2008 and 2010 of their properties.
On Thursday Head appeared in court in Phuket alongside one of the retirees, Ian Rance, a British national, who is a joint defendant in the prosecution. Both pleaded not guilty.
Head and Rance had to surrender their passports to the court, leaving Head unable to work across Asia as he fights what could be a two-year court battle.
The BBC said it stood by its journalism and intended to clear Head’s name. Pratuan did not respond to requests for comment.
In Thailand defamation is a criminal offence, private citizens can launch their own cases and they do not have to pay costs if they lose.
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said the case against Head and Rance showed “exactly why having criminal defamation laws is such a bad idea”.
He said it meant powerful people could “engage in a game of legal blood sport by dragging people through the Thai court system”.