ELIZABETH SOELISTIO WRITES – Jonathan Head, the South East Asia Correspondent for BBC News, is under the threat of serving up to five years of jail time in Thailand after a lawyer reported him for a criminal defamation.

This charges are brought to Head after he reported on two foreign retirees who had been scammed out of their properties in Phuket by their wives in September 2015. Though Thailand’s law doesn’t permit foreigners to own a land, many foreigners get around it by placing properties in the name of a company they own or with locals they trust.

Ian Rance and Colin Vard managed to get around this law by placing their properties under their Thai wives and company’s name. However, both men were removed from their properties’ ownership by their wives with an assistance from a local lawyer who claimed forging Rance and Vard’s signature as a normal practice in Phuket.

Pratuan Thanarak was the local lawyer who assisted Suda, Rance’s wife, in removing him from directorship position of his properties. Though their wives were charged and arrested for scamming their husbands, Rance and Vard were unable to get their properties back despite fighting it in the court.

Thanarak accused Head and Rance of criminal defamation since the investigation has caused him to be “defamed, insulted or hated”. This criminal charges against both defendant forced them to surrender their passport which unable Head to work across Asia as he fights what could be a two year court battle and possibility of two years jail time.

Head also faces an additional charge under Thailand’s updated Computer Crimes Act (CCA) that was passed in December 2016. This law was passed to strengthen junta’s ability to police the web and tightens the online expression but it is also a threat to freedom of speech, especially for the press.

According to Channel News Asia, Computer Crimes Act “allots up to five years in prison for entering ‘false information into a computer system that jeopardises national security, public safety, national economic stability or public infrastructure, or causes panic’”.

Human Right groups say charges brought against Head exposes how Thailand’s defamation and computer crime laws limit investigative journalism and make it complicated to expose wrongdoing in a corrupt country.

On February 23, Head and Rance appeared in court in Phuket and both pleaded not guilty. The BBC said it stood by its journalism and intended to clear Head’s name.

This is not the first time a journalist to be accused of defamation and computer-crime lawsuit. Phuket court dismissed the same lawsuit in 2015 against an Australian journalist, Alan Morison, and his Thai colleague, Chutima Sidasathian, by the Royal Thai Navy over their coverage of the trafficking of Rohingyas from Myanmar.

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