Sea View Koh Chang is suing an American man for defamation over negative reviews. (Photo: Agoda)
The lack of free speech in Thailand has been thrown into sharp relief after an American man was arrested by police for posting negative reviews online of a local hotel.
According to a widely shared Facebook post, Wesley Barnes, a 37-year-old man from Arkansas who works as an English teacher in Thailand, stayed at a resort on the island of Koh Chang in the Gulf of Thailand in June and found the service to be substandard.
He went on to post negative reviews of the establishment online, writing in part that the staff were not friendly and that the resort restaurant’s manager, a Czech national, was unresponsive to any complaints over an extra charge that Barnes took issue with.
Immigration police showed up at Barnes’ workplace with a warrant for his arrest and he was taken back to Koh Chang on Sept. 12 and charged with defamation.
Because he could not post bail at first, Barnes was forced to spend two nights in jail and could be sentenced to two years in prison if found guilty.
In its defense, the 156-room resort, called Sea View Koh Chang, said in a public statement that “online reviews are very important to small businesses like ours and receiving up to four negative one-star reviews over a period of time can be extremely damaging.”
The management of the resort, which is owned by a prominent local businessman with reputed links to a dominant Thai conglomerate, said it was suing Barnes because he had “fabricated stories” with “xenophobic connotations” and “defamatory intentions” by accusing the resort of engaging in “modern-day slavery,” among other charges.
The resort’s manager explained that Barnes used “abusive language” towards staff, who were very conciliatory in response.
“We chose to file a complaint to serve as a deterrent as we understood he may continue to write negative reviews week after week for the foreseeable future,” the establishment said in its statement.
Yet several media professionals have spoken out against the hotel for suing one of its former customers over negative reviews regardless of their content.
“It is heavy-handed and threatening behaviour that will damage tourism in Thailand. The resort should drop the case immediately,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a Scottish journalist and pro-democracy advocate who frequently comments on affairs in Thailand, said in a Facebook post.
In Thailand, where freedom of speech is severely curtailed by various punitive laws, defamation suits are routinely launched by businesses against individuals who speak out against what they see as dishonest or exploitative practices.
In recent years several labor rights activists and journalists have been sued for highlighting the grueling conditions in which migrant workers from Myanmar and elsewhere are often forced to work for minimal pay.
Last December a provincial court in central Thailand found Suchanee Cloitre, a 30-year-old television reporter, guilty of libeling an agribusiness company that was facing accusations of having exploited migrant workers from Myanmar at its chicken farm.
The company, called Thammakaset, sued the journalist over a tweet from 2016 in which she had likened the condition of the migrant workers at the farm to “slave labor.”
Previously, a court had ordered the company to pay 1.7 million baht (US$53,700) in compensation to 14 migrant workers for forcing them to work up to 20 hours a day.
Nonetheless, Suchanee was sentenced to a two-year prison term. She has launched an appeal.
“Journalists should never be jailed for their critical commentary on issues of public import,” Shawn Crispin, a senior representative in Southeast Asia of the international rights group Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement.
“It’s high time Thailand repealed its draconian and abusive criminal defamation law,” he added.
According to rights groups such as Amnesty International, freedom of speech is severely limited in Thailand, with authorities and businesses alike employing various legal channels to silence critics.