BANGKOK • 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 in a popular tourist island.
Rights groups said the case exposes how Thailand's broad defamation and computer crime laws scupper investigative journalism and make it difficult to expose wrongdoing in a country where corruption is endemic.
The prosecution was sparked by a September 2015 report by Jonathan Head, the BBC's South-east Asia correspondent, looking at how two foreign retirees were scammed out of their properties in Phuket.
Head appeared in a Phuket court yesterday alongside one of the retirees, British national Ian Rance, who is a joint defendant in the prosecution. Both pleaded not guilty.
The man bringing the prosecution is Mr 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 with whom he had three children and bought what he said were some US$1.2 million (S$1.7 million) worth of properties.
Under Thai law, foreigners cannot own land but many get around that provision by placing properties in the name of a company they own or locals they trust.
In 2010, Rance discovered that his wife had forged his signature to remove him as director so that she could sell the properties. She was jailed for four years over the scam.
Head reported that Mr Pratuan admitted to notarising Rance's signature without him being present.
Mr Pratuan filed a defamation case alleging the reports caused him to be "defamed, insulted or hated", according to a copy of the complaint which was seen by Agence France-Presse.
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 maximum penalty of five years' jail.
Mr 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". He added that the powerful can "engage in a game of legal blood sport by dragging people through the Thai court system".