Women human rights defenders call for stronger anti-SLAPP measures

At a press conference on Saturday (9 September), Protection International and a panel of women human rights defenders called on the new government to strengthen its anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) measures to protect human rights.

The panel at Saturday's press conference. From left: Pranom Somwong, Angkhana Neelapaijit, Phontip Sayomchai, Theerarat Samrejvanich, Sararat Raungsri, and Chonticha Jangrew.

Pichamon Yeophantong from the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights said during her opening speech that the main obstacle to the work of women human rights defenders and environmental activists is lawsuits intended to silence them. She noted that the Working Group believes that both the government and the private sector must stop such practices and instead, treat human rights defenders as partners who can help to resolve human rights violation issues.

She called for the government, the Ministry of Justice, and the private sector to end the use of defamation laws to harass and violate the rights of human rights defenders. She also asked that the government implement measures to support and compensate those facing legal prosecution, especially women, who are often responsible for the care of their families and made to live in fear.

“It’s time to end laws that silence human right defenders; they are at the forefront of promoting changes to foster a sustainable society,” Pichamon said.

Protection International Thailand representative Pranom Somwong said that the number of SLAPP lawsuits filed by both the government and private companies has been rising since the 2014 military coup. Meanwhile, human rights defenders, along with their communities and families, have been intimidated through the use of defamation laws, a discriminatory legal system, and law enforcement bias.

Pranom noted that human rights defenders, particularly women, frequently become targets of SLAPP lawsuits. Those raising concerns about issues facing their communities are also often accused of defamation for disclosing information about these issues. Such accusations, Pranom said, are detrimental to a democratic society as they pose a threat to stability and progress.

Of the 570 SLAPP lawsuits documented by Protection International, most were filed by mining companies, palm oil companies, and government agencies like the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP). Women from urban poor communities often become the targets of SLAPP lawsuits, as do women land rights and community rights activists. Instead of supporting such activists, the authorities are also likely to allow private companies to silence them through lawsuits.

Calling upon the new government to end SLAPP lawsuits and intimidation against human rights defenders, Pranom noted that Protection International will be submitting a proposal to the government and parliament.

The opening speeches were followed by a panel on ending SLAPP lawsuits against women human rights defenders. Panelist Angkhana Neelapaijit, a former National Human Rights Commissioner and a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, said that, although the Thai government has announced a second National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP2), the number of SLAPP lawsuits continues to rise. She said that these lawsuits are intended to hinder the work of the defendants, reduce their credibility, and intimidate them, disrupting their lives and damaging their mental health. She also noted that the NAP2 plan makes no mention of protection measures.

Angkhana was personally hit by a SLAPP lawsuit. The chicken farm company Thammakaset filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against her and two other women human rights defenders for tweets which showed support for other defendants being sued by the company. On 29 August, the South Bangkok Criminal Court acquitted the three women.

Angkhana called on the new Minister of Justice and the Supreme Court Chief Justice to implement measures to prevent lawsuits filed in bad faith or for purposes of intimidation. She also asked the National Human Rights Commission to take a more active role in protecting human rights defenders by observing trials and holding discussions with the Supreme Court Chief Justice on SLAPP lawsuits.

Phontip Sayomchai, a leader of the community rights group Khon Rak Ban Kerd, said that she has suffered 6 lawsuits in the past decade as a result of her campaign against gold mining near her community in Loei Province.   She added that around 30 other people in her community were hit with similar lawsuits designed to obstruct their movement.   Obtaining support from government agencies was also described as difficult; of the 30 lawsuits filed against Phontip and other activists in her community, they were only able to obtain financial support from a single source - the Ministry of Justice’s Justice Fund.

Sararat Ruangsri from the Southern Peasants’ Federation of Thailand (SPFT) said that activists from her organisation have had at least 12 lawsuits filed against them by private companies for campaigning for land rights and food security. National Land Policy Board regulations were also used to threaten them with eviction.

Phontip raised concerns that the new government failed to mention community rights and human rights in their economic policy, which is mostly focused on mega-projects.  She speculated that defenders of local communities affected by these projects and will face more lawsuits, and called on the new government to not only prevent rights violations but also to hold government officials who fail to do so accountable for their actions. She also proposed that the government make it easier to obtain support from the Justice Fund, as recommended by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Sararat asked that the Thai government end the intimidation and arrest of women human rights defenders, support the rights of communities to manage their own land, frame guideline to bring lawsuits in line with international laws, and pass the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights into law so that it is enforceable. She also called for criminal proceeding laws to be amended so that SLAPP lawsuits can be dismissed, for defendants to be compensated by public and private entities that file lawsuits, and for the criminal defamation law to be repealed.

Chonticha Jangrew, an activist-turned-MP from the Move Forward Party, said she has faced over 28 lawsuits, some only recently dismissed. She noted that legal proceedings in these cases take a long time, and are not meant for fact finding but rather to create obstacles in the lives of the defendants. She said that complaints against judges should be taken seriously, noting that although complaints can be filed with the Judicial Commission for an inquiry into a judge’s conduct, there is often very little progress. Members of the Judicial Commission should also be elected, instead of selected by other judges.

Chonticha promised that the Move Forward Party will be proposing amendments to legislation on criminal and civil procedures, the royal defamation law, the Computer Crimes Act, and the sedition law. The party will also be proposing an amnesty bill for those facing charges for political expression.

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