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A British journalist with the BBC faces up to five years in a Thai jail after a lawyer brought a criminal defamation case against him over an investigation into fraud on a popular tourist island.
Rights groups say 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 prosecution was sparked by a 2015 report by Jonathan Head, the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, looking at how two foreign retirees were scammed out of their properties in Phuket.
Head appeared in a Phuket court on Thursday alongside one of the victims, British national Ian Rance who is a joint defendant in the prosecution. Both pleaded not guilty.
The man bringing the prosecution is Pratuan Thanarak, a Phuket lawyer who featured in the BBC’s report looking at how Rance lost lucrative properties.
Rance retired to Phuket in 2001, married a local woman with whom he had three children and bought some $1.2 million worth of properties.
Under Thai law foreigners cannot own land. But many get around that by placing properties in the name of a company they own or with locals they trust.
In 2010, Rance discovered his wife forged his signature to remove him as director and sell the properties with the help of a network of money lenders and property agents on the island.
She was jailed for four years over the scam and he has fought through the courts for years to get the properties back.
The BBC’s Head reported that Pratuan, the lawyer, admitted to notarising Rance’s signature without him being present.
Pratuan filed a defamation case alleging the reports caused him to be “defamed, insulted or hated,” according to a copy of the complaint seen by AFP.
‘Legal blood sport’
Rance and Head face one charge of criminal defamation, which carries up to two years in jail. Head faces an additional charge under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, which has a five-year maximum jail penalty.
Both defendants have 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.
In a statement, the BBC said it “stands by its journalism” and that they “intend to clear the name of our correspondent.”
Unlike most countries where defamation is a civil crime, in Thailand it is a criminal offence.
Private citizens can launch their own cases and they are not forced to pay costs if they lose.
Rance said his dream to invest his retirement savings in Thailand had turned into a “nightmare.”
“I’ve lost everything,” he told AFP.
Pratuan did not respond to requests for comment.
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,” adding that the powerful can “engage in game of legal blood sport by dragging people through the Thai court system.”
Similar cases have been brought in recent years.
Local news site Phuketwan closed down in 2015 after running out of money in its successful bid to defeat a suit brought by Thailand’s navy.
Andrew Drummond, a British crime reporter, left the country the same year because of cases brought by those he exposed as did British rights activist Andy Hall in 2016.