The arrest of a tourist for writing a bad review about a hotel in Thailand made headlines around the world, but freedom of expression advocates say the case should draw more attention to deeply problematic defamation laws trained on human rights activists and journalists.
American tourist Wesley Barnes spent the weekend in jail in September after the Sea View Koh Chang resort filed defamation complaints following a harsh review on Tripadvisor and other travel websites. Charges against Barnes were eventually dismissed after a public apology. But Tripadvisor took the unusual step of posting a warning on its page for the hotel.
“Tripadvisor strongly opposes any action where a business, like the Sea View Hotel in Koh Chang, uses local law to send someone to jail for expressing their opinion,” a representative told VICE World News. “This extraordinary action is why we have taken steps to issue an alert to other travelers, in the form of a notification on the hotel's listing page on Tripadvisor.”
In a statement to VICE World News, the hotel, which does not have the same warning on other travel sites, said it was “disappointed” that Tripadvisor “has not remained impartial and decided to dishonor the agreement by downgrading our ranking.” It maintained that it wasn’t in the wrong and called the warning “misleading.”
Before the coronavirus, Thailand received about 40 million tourists a year, and disputes like this were rare. Far more common, and far less covered in the press, were cases where local laws were used to silence dissent.
Thailand’s royal defamation laws carry penalties of up to 15 years for comments deemed offensive to the monarchy, though pro-democracy protesters have pushed boundaries during recent demonstrations and usage of the law has declined.
Authorities have also used the computer crimes act to file charges against opposition figures and activists, while individuals and businesses have sued journalists and rights defenders under defamation statutes that can lead to two years in prison.
“Criminal defamation provisions are ripe for abuse,” Matthew Bugher, head of the Asia program at freedom of speech advocacy group Article 19, told VICE World News. “Thailand should decriminalize defamation. While companies and individuals should have a right to defend themselves against falsehoods, criminal defamation provisions cause more harm than good. Civil actions more appropriately balance free speech with the right to defend one’s reputation.”
Many of these cases are so-called SLAPP suits, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) partially defines them as lawsuits “undertaken with the principal objective of curtailing or deterring public criticism.”
Judges in Thailand have dismissed most of the cases, including one against a journalist who was initially sentenced to two years in prison for a tweet about labor practices at a farm. But the chilling and self-censorship effect it creates is undeniable.
In an interview with the New York Times about the hotel case, Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said Thailand’s use of criminal defamation is “really off the charts.”