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BBC to fight for correspondent Jonathan Head's freedom in Thailand

Sydney Morning Herald - February 26, 2017

Lindsay Murdoch, Bangkok The BBC says it will fight allegations against one of its most experienced foreign correspondents in a defamation case in a Thai court that carries a possible five-year prison sentence.

Rights groups say charges brought against Jonathan Head, the BBC's Bangkok-based South-east Asia correspondent, expose how Thailand's computer crime and defamation laws scupper investigative journalism and are a threat to freedom of speech.

Head pleaded not guilty in a court on the resort island of Phuket on Thursday to charges brought against him by a Thai lawyer over two September 2015 reports into how foreign retirees were allegedly scammed out of their properties.

"The BBC stands by its journalism and we will fight the allegations made against our correspondent by these proceedings," a BBC spokesperson said. "We have full faith in the Thai justice system and we intend to clear the name of our correspondent."

Head, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand and for decades one of Asia's most high-profile correspondents, has had to surrender his passport, leaving him unable to work across Asia as he fights what could be a years-long court battle.

The court rejected two petitions from BBC's lawyers arguing Head was required to travel at short notice for work and should be able to keep his passport.

"So I guess for the duration of the trial possibly two years I will downgrade myself from South-east Asia correspondent to Thailand correspondent," Head wrote on his Facebook page.

Unlike most countries where defamations are heard as civil matters, in Thailand they are treated as criminal offences. Private citizens can launch their own cases.

Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director, said the charges brought against Head and a retired British businessman, Ian Rance, show "exactly why having criminal defamation laws are such a bad idea". He added the powerful can "engage in the game of legal blood sport by dragging people through the Thai court system".

Phuket lawyer Pratuan Thanarak has brought one charge of criminal defamation against Head and another against Mr Rance. The charges carry up to two years' jail. Mr Rance has also pleaded not guilty.

Head faces a further charge under Thailand's Computer Crimes Act, which has a five-year maximum penalty.

Mr Pratuan filed a case alleging Head's report caused him to be "defamed, insulted or hated". Head reported that Mr Pratuan admitted to notarising Mr Rance's signature on a document without him being present.

The BBC report detailed how Mr Rance had lost $US1.2 million in properties through alleged fraud since retiring to Phuket in 2001 and marrying a Thai woman with whom he had three children.

The report detailed allegations that in 2010 Mr Rance's wife had forged his signature to remove him as director of a company owning the properties, with the help of a network of money lenders and property agents. She was jailed for four years.

BBC lawyers argued at a pretrial hearing in December 2016 that translations of the BBC reports presented by Mr Pratuan were "significantly incorrect".

Several cases of defamation have been brought against journalists and activists in Thailand.

In 2015 a Phuket court dismissed a defamation and computer-crime lawsuit against Australian journalist Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian by the Royal Thai Navy over their coverage of the trafficking of Rohingyas from Myanmar.

Morison, a former senior editor at The Age, fought a 30-month legal battle that forced him to close his award-winning Phuketwan online news service and cost him much of his life's savings. Morison and Chutima had faced up to seven years' jail on the charges that were condemned by human rights and media groups across the world.

British rights activist Andy Hall left Thailand last year after multiple defamation cases were filed against him over a report he helped research highlighting alleged abuses against migrant workers.

Andrew Drummond, a British journalist writing about expatriate criminal networks in Thailand, left the country in 2015 after fighting a dozen defamation cases and receiving threats.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/bbc-to-fight-for-correspondent-jonathan-heads-freedom-in-thailand-20170226-gukbxd.html.

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