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Retail giant files absurdly large defamation lawsuits against columnist and former MP over criticisms

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Tesco Lotus, one of the biggest retailers in Thailand, has filed two staggering defamation cases against a Thai columnist and a former Member of Parliament, sending a strong message to civil society and the press to tread carefully before criticising the retailing giant in Thailand.

Tesco Lotus is suing columnist/academic Kamol Kamoltrakul and former Thai National Legislative Assembly (NLA) member Jit Siratranont for 100 million baht (approx. US$3.21 million) and one billion baht (approx. US$32.1 million), respectively, after they criticised and questioned the aggressive expansion strategies of Tesco Lotus in Thailand.

Siratranont, currently the secretary general of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, was quoted by the British newspaper "The Observer" as saying in a speech to 150 activists: "The large-scale expansion of the big retailers must be exercised with great care - not too aggressively and too rapidly - to reduce the potential tension, which could lead to serious conflict. There is also the need for the small retail traders to adjust to changes. Tesco Lotus must take all of this into account."

Kamol was sued for an article published in the Thai-language "KrungThepTurakit" (BangkokBizNews), which expressed generally the same concerns about Tesco Lotus' aggressiveness, and also what the columnist suggested was the retailing giant's weak social responsibility in Thailand.

Both Siratranont and Kamol acknowledged erroneously saying that Tesco Lotus' Thailand operations accounted for as much as 37 percent of the UK-based Tesco's global revenue, but stressed that this did not detract from the main message of their concerns - concerns which, in any case, were of legitimate public interest in Thailand.

SEAPA strongly condemns the heavy-handed attempts of Tesco Lotus to intimidate its critics, and thereby sending a chilling message to civil society and members of the press. Civil defamation suits of this nature and of such absurd proportions are not really meant to win in court, but rather to intimidate independent media, harass legitimate criticism, and stifle discussions and debate over legitimate public concerns.

The expansion of foreign retailing chains in Thailand has long been a major political issue as it undercuts tens of thousands of small retailers across the country.

As demonstrated by Tesco Lotus - and in recent years by other civil and criminal defamation suits filed against journalists and activists by such Thai business giants as Shin Corporation - threats to press freedom come not only from government and political figures, but also from powerful lobbies of private entities. SEAPA sees the Tesco Lotus suits as harassment, pure and simple, not only of consumer advocates and Thai civil society actors, but of journalists and commentators in general.

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