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BBC journalist Jonathan Head in Phuket court for defamation trial

British BBC journalist Jonathan Head appeared in Phuket Provincial Court today (Aug 23) for the start of a criminal defamation trial brought by a lawyer who featured in an investigation about foreigners being scammed of their retirement homes.

Mr Head, the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, faces up to five years in jail if found guilty of the the private prosecution brought against him.

Rights groups have said the case exposes how Thailand’s broad defamation and computer crime laws scupper investigative journalism and make it difficult to uncover wrongdoing in the country.

The prosecution was sparked by a 2015 report by Mr Head detailing how two foreign retirees had Phuket properties stolen from them by a network of criminals and corrupt officials.

One of the victims, British national Ian Rance, is a joint defendant in the prosecution. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The man bringing the prosecution is Pratuan Thanarak, a local lawyer who featured in the BBC’s report looking at how Rance lost $1.2 million (about B40mn) worth of properties.

According to the report, Mr Pratuan admitted on tape to certifying Rance’s signature without him being present, a move which helped the British retiree’s then-wife transfer his properties out of his name.

She was later convicted and jailed for four years for the scam.

A copy of Mr Pratuan’s complaint seen by AFP alleges that the BBC’s report caused him to be “defamed, insulted or hated”. It does not detail whether or not he notarised the signature without Mr Rance being present.

Mr Pratuan declined to speak about the case on the way into court this morning. He warned gathered photographers that he would file a lawsuit against anyone who published images of him.

Neither Mr Head nor Mr Rance spoke to reporters on their way into the Phuket court today.

In a previous statement the BBC has said it “stands by its journalism” and that they “intend to clear the name of our correspondent”.

Mr Rance and Mr Head face one charge of criminal defamation, which carries up to two years in jail.

Mr Head faces an additional charge under Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, a broadly-worded law which forbids uploading “false data” online and carries a five-year maximum jail penalty.

Unlike most countries where defamation is a civil crime, in Thailand it is a criminal offence.

Private citizens can also launch their own prosecutions and they are not forced to pay costs if they lose.

Similar cases have been brought in recent years.

The Phuket News

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