Have you ever wondered how your food is made? More specifically, have you ever wondered if your food is produced ethically? There is one approach that aims to promote compliant business.[i] The second approach is to expose unethical business practices through investigative journalism. For attempting to expose allegedly unethical practices Andy Hall faced the prospect of up to seven years in prison on the basis of the Thai law of defamation. What about freedom of speech and the press? Using U.S. law as a model, Thailand should modify its law to eliminate the possibility of criminal liability for defamation.
Andy Hall, a British lawyer and academic, collaborated with Finnwatch, a Non-Governmental Organization based in Finland, as a researcher on labor standards in the Food Industry in Thailand.[ii] This venture resulted in the 2013 publication “Cheap Has a High Price”, exposing immigration and labor issues related to specific producers of tuna and pineapple products in Thailand.[iii] As a result, Natural Fruit Company Ltd. lost business and brought suit against Andy Hall in Thailand alleging defamation.[iv] During the course of the multiyear litigation there was a degree of public outcry from elements of the international community on Andy Hall’s behalf.[v] On September 20, 2016, the Bangkok South Criminal Court found Andy Hall guilty of criminal defamation and cybercrimes.[vi] Hall received a suspended three year sentence and a 150,000 baht ($4,300) fine.[vii] But, civil liability still looms in the distance, especially if Thailand follows res judicata, by which Hall could be precluded from arguing his civil liability since he has already been found criminally liable, which presumably has a higher standard of proof.[viii]
As a sovereign nation, Thailand has control over the laws and their application within its borders. The issue of domestic sovereignty echoes the common phrase “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”[ix] Under Thai law, defamation can result in criminal and civil liability.[x] Criminal defamation is defined as “imput[ing] anything to the other person before a third person in a manner likely to impair the reputation of such other person or to expose such other person to be hated or scorned.”[xi] Because Mr. Hall’s work was published online (albeit in Finnish), he was additionally subjected to liability under the Computer Penal Code, which has stiffer penalties.[xii]
Thailand does allow defenses in actions for defamation. A defendant may prove the truth of his statement, or if the plaintiff is a “subject of public criticism” the defendant may assert the statement was a “fair comment” made in “good faith.”[xiii] In the case of Andy Hall it is uncertain where the gap exists that the defense of truth was unsuccessful. But, there has been criticism regarding the limited sample size for interviews, leading one to believe that the facts may not be inherently false, but just overgeneralized.[xiv] That this is sufficient to find liability is an unfortunate byproduct of a system that places the burden upon the defendant to prove truth.
What if Andy Hall had investigated a company in the United States instead? Under United States law, the company as Plaintiff would have to show that a false statement was made.[xv] Changing the burden of proof in this instance would have drastic effect. If the publication was just overgeneralized, it would be equally difficult to prove the statement was false in the United States as it was to prove that it was true in Thailand. Even if the company were able to prove the statement to be false there are further protections for speech in the United States. Depending on whether the company is considered private or public, they would additionally be required to show either negligence or knowing culpability (“actual malice”) on behalf of Mr. Hall.[xvi] With all these protections, Mr. Hall likely would not have been found civilly liable for defamation in the United States. Within the U.S., there are several states that allow for criminal liability for defamation; but, these laws are confined by the same robust protections as civil defamation.[xvii]
However, these protections have not always existed in the United States. The law of defamation has evolved massively over the past sixty years in the United States. Prior to 1964, defamation allowed for per se liability.[xviii] Under this system, falsity was the only thing that needed to be proved.[xix] We don’t have to look very far in United States history for some level of liability to be foreseeable. This change additionally reflects that legal reform is possible and valuable.
Going forward, what should be the reform priorities on this issue in Thailand? Ideally, the burden of proof should be shifted from the Defendant to the Plaintiff. Placing the burden upon the defendant can have a chilling effect on speech. The burden of proof coupled with criminal responsibility for defamation is guaranteed to limit speech. In this regard, Andy Hall is just the tip of the iceberg; a Thai woman is facing similar criminal charges for attempting to bring light to the alleged graphic murder of her relative.[xx]
Daniel Huchla is a third year law student at the University of Baltimore and a graduate of Miami University with a Bachelor of Music. During his undergraduate studies, he performed in an International Opera Festival located in Brazil. He also serves as Associate Managing Editor for the University of Baltimore Law Review. Areas of interest include Administrative Law, International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law, and National Security Law. He is currently a Law Clerk with the Law Offices of McCabe, Weisberg & Conway.
[vi] BBC, supra note iv.
[viii] Finnwatch, supra note iii; see e.g. Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008).
[x] See Finnwatch, supra note iii.
[xv] See Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767 (1986); 1 Law of Defamation § 5:13 (2d ed.).
[xvi] 1 Law of Defamation § 1:34 (2d ed.)
[xviii] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).