British human rights activist and blogger Andy Hall is currently on trial in Thailand. He is accused of criminal defamation and ‘computer crimes’ after contributing to a report about alleged abuses of migrant workers perpetrated by the Natural Fruit Company Limited, a Thai-owned fruit processing company that supplies European markets. Natural Fruit brought a complaint against Hall following the report’s appearance.
Hall has lived in Thailand for eleven years and was the lead researcher on the report, which was written while he worked as an associate researcher at Mahidol University in Bangkok. He was responsible for coordinating the field research and conducting interviews with migrant workers from Burma, who allegedly suffered labour rights abuses, including poor working conditions. The company also allegedly employed child labour. The report, entitled ‘Cheap has a high price: Responsibility problems relating to international private label products and food production in Thailand’, was published on 21 January 2013 by the Finnish NGO Finnwatch (Natural Fruit supplies Finnish retailers).
Natural Fruit denies the allegations. The fruit company cites the inclusion of Hall’s name, alongside others, on the front page of an executive summary in English as evidence of Hall’s responsibility for the report. It also alleges that he was involved in its dissemination on Finnwatch’s website. This is strongly denied by Finnwatch, who claim that they are the authors of the report and that Hall has no access to their website. Finnwatch has condemned Natural Fruit’s decision to prosecute a private individual instead of the organisation that published and bears responsibility for the report.
If convicted, Hall faces up to seven years in prison, in addition to fines. Charges were first filed against him in February 2013. On 18 September 2015, an appeals court dismissed one case of defamation, ruling that neither Natural Fruit nor state prosecutors had grounds to sue for defamation in Thailand. At a bail hearing held on 13 January this year, a Bangkok court imposed a travel ban on Hall and confiscated his passport. On 18 January he was formally indicted on two other charges of criminal defamation and violations of the Computer Crimes Act. Hall’s trial began on 19 May and the defence testimony is due to be heard over eight days in June and July. Damages of over US$13 million are being sought. The final ruling in the case is expected in September.
Just over two years ago, Thailand underwent its twelfth successful coup d’état since 1932, following a period of political violence. The coup leaders imposed martial law and a curfew, dissolved the Senate – the only remaining national government body with elected members – and granted wide-ranging executive and legislative powers to military commanders. According to PEN, tight control of the media was imposed: many television and radio stations were shut down and journalists and academics were arrested. Martial law was finally revoked in March 2015.
I’ve previously written in these pages about violations of free expression in Thailand. Most recently (LR, December 2015), I highlighted the case of Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong. In February 2015 they were each sentenced to two and a half years in prison for staging and performing in a play, Jao Sao Ma Pa (‘The Wolf’s Bride’), about a fictional monarch and his adviser. The pair were accused of violating Thailand’s prohibition against lese-majesty, one of the strictest laws against insult in the world, which has remained unchanged since 1908. The law is often used to silence peaceful dissent.
United Nations’ human rights organisations have repeatedly claimed that criminal defamation and insult laws, including Thailand’s lese-majesty laws, are incompatible with international standards on free expression. In 2011 Frank La Rue, then UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, called on Thailand to reform its lese-majesty laws. He said, ‘The threat of a long prison sentence and vagueness of what kinds of expression constitute defamation, insult, or threat to the monarchy, encourage self-censorship and stifle important debates on matters of public interest, thus putting in jeopardy the right to freedom of opinion and expression.’
Hall campaigned for the two Burmese migrant workers convicted of the brutal murder of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the Thai holiday island of Koh Tao and helped to raise funds for their defence (there were doubts regarding the fairness of their trial; it has been suggested that they were easy targets chosen to wrap up the case quickly). He also worked with Aung San Suu Kyi when he lived in Burma. PEN believes that the charges against Hall are in retaliation for his peaceful and legitimate work as a migrant rights advocate and is calling for his release.
Readers might like to send appeals calling for all charges against Andy Hall to be dropped as they are in direct violation of his right to freedom of expression, in contravention of Articles 9 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party; expressing serious concern over the use of criminal defamation and computer-crime laws to gag critical voices; and urging the authorities to amend the criminal code, by decriminalising defamation and insult, so that it meets Thailand’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Kittiphong Na Ranong
Royal Thai Embassy in London
29–30 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5JB
Fax: 0207 823 7492
General Prayuth Chan-ocha
Leader of National Council for Peace and Order
Royal Thai Army Headquarters, Rachadamnoen Nok Road
Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Fax: +66 2226 1838