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TESCO CONTINUES SPREE OF LIBEL SUITS

One of Thailand's retail giants has filed an exorbitant defamation suit against a business journalist, the latest in a string of lawsuits by private companies to intimidate their critics and the press in general, say the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and ARTICLE 19.

Tesco Lotus is seeking 100 million Baht (approx. US$3.3 million) in damages from Nongnart Harniwilai, for her columns in the Thai-language business daily "Krungthep Turakit" that questioned the retail giant's aggressive expansion plans in the country.

The columnist said that Tesco's expansion strategy has disturbed the livelihood of local residents, and wrote "Tesco Lotus doesn't love Thai people."

This is the third defamation suit filed by Tesco Lotus in Thailand since last November. The retailer has also filed a defamation case against Thai columnist Kamol Kamoltrakul for 100 million Baht, as well as against former member of Parliament and consumer advocate Jit Siratranont for one billion Baht (approx. US$33 million), after they also criticised Tesco's expansion plans.

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, says SEAPA.

SEAPA sees the Tesco Lotus suits - as well as other defamation suits filed by similar Thai businesses - "as harassment, pure and simple, not only of consumer advocates and Thai civil society actors, but of journalists and commentators in general."

The defamation suits test a new law in Thailand that seeks to empower publishing companies, but which may apparently also leave individual journalists feeling more vulnerable, comments SEAPA. Thailand's Press Registration Act of 2006 no longer demands that newspaper editors and publishers automatically share in defamation suits brought against their writers; those filing defamation charges now have the option to sue just the individual - as Tesco Lotus has done.

SEAPA says the strategy "sends a chilling message as well as a divisive attack on the media sector as a whole, resonating with individual journalists while sending the signal to their principals and companies not to get involved."

Tesco Lotus's mother company, the U.K.-based Tesco, has also started legal proceedings against the British newspaper "The Guardian" for libel and malicious falsehood, report SEAPA and ARTICLE 19. Tesco said it was taking the action over suggestions that the company had been avoiding paying some of its taxes.

TJA has been gathering defendants, lawyers, journalists and senior members of the National Press Council to consult on how best to defend themselves and free expression under the constitution. See its website for developments: http://www.tja.or.th/

Visit these links:
- SEAPA: http://www.seapa.org/
- ARTICLE 19: http://www.article19.org/pdfs/press/thailand-tesco-def.pdf
(22 April 2008)

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