The retail giant is displaying a sudden enthusiasm for libel courts, writes Roby Alampay
In the space of five months, four libel suits have been filed by Tesco, one of the world’s biggest retailers, and its subsidiary in Thailand, Tesco Lotus.
The latest of those suits, filed this month in Britain, targets the Guardian for a story on Tesco’s tax filings. The three other defamation charges were all filed between November 2007 and March 2008 in Thailand by Tesco Lotus, Tesco’s subsidiary in that country, and summon to court a former legislator and current consumer advocate, as well as two columnists, who criticised the company’s expansion in the land. At least one of the columnists also raised questions about Tesco Lotus’s accounting and tax filing procedures.
Tesco Lotus’s impact on the Thai retail industry has been a topic of public discussion ever since the company’s entry into the Thai market in 1998.
That the company would now seek damages against advocates and media practitioners signals to some observers an attempt to now simply avoid that continuing debate.
The Thai Journalists Association this week called for an emergency meeting, recognizing the impact Tesco Lotus actions may have on press freedom and free expression in Thailand. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance, of which the TJA is a member, has called the defamation suits ‘pure acts of harassment against civil society and the press’, and warned that the ‘absurd’ damages sought could have a chilling effect on Thai journalists and advocates critical of Tesco.
Indeed, SEAPA notes that Tesco Lotus’ 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.
Thailand’s Press Registration Act of 2006, among other things, removes the requirement of a permit for setting up newspapers and also protects newspaper editors and publishers from automatically sharing in defamation suits brought against their writers. Under the 1941 law the Press Registration Act of 2006 replaces, the editor (and/or the publisher) and the author had to share the liability.
Now entities filing defamation charges have the option to sue just individual writers — which is exactly what Tesco Lotus has done, suing the two Thai columnists for $3.3m each, and the former legislator and current consumer activist for $33m. SEAPA is concerned that the strategy sends a chilling message as well as 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.
For more information, visit the SEAPA website at www.seapa.org