A slap in the face of free speech - new study reveals 1 in 4 SLAPP cases go to court for as little as sending a tweet

A major new study into the rise of SLAPP use in Thailand has been unveiled - with disturbing implications not just for the people being hit with these trumped-up legal charges which aim to silence free speech, but for the rest of the world.


SLAPPs - strategic lawsuits against public participation - are illegal in many countries because they unfairly empower the wealthy and are used to intimidate those who wish to raise legitimate concerns on issues of public interest.


SLAPPs are often baseless, deliberately complicated, lengthy and expensive for participants. So if someone doesn't have the finances to defend themselves, they have no choice but to give in to the demands of the plaintiff – usually in the form of damages, apologies and retracting the "offending" comments. 


SLAPPs are often libel cases and in Thailand, shockingly, defamation can be a criminal charge, with up to two years in prison and a £5,320 fine if found guilty of publicly damaging reputations of other persons.




The study has been put together by Thailand’s Human Rights Lawyers Association found that since 1997, 212 SLAPP cases have been brought to Thai courts, some for as little as one social media post. In fact, one in four cases involve expressing their views online. People have been sued for trying to complain about illegal working conditions, police brutality, or environmental impacts by the very actors they are accusing. 


Things have got progressively worse since the coup in 2014, with the military creating and applying laws in ways that protect the powerful and oppress the weak, and prioritise corporate or government interests against the public good.




The study also found that 95% of SLAPP cases in Thailand include criminal charges and the majority involve everyday people - political activists and volunteers (39%), community groups or workers (23%)  human rights defenders (16%) and journalists (9%) and the most common activity cited as the reason for the suit is expressing views online (25%). 



The trauma of being sued and dragged through court creates a very real chilling effect on freedom of expression, and creates a society where fewer people are willing to stand up for the vulnerable and underrepresented. 




This is especially troubling in Thailand, which now has the greatest wealth gap in the world, where the wealthiest top 1% control 66.9% of the country's wealth and the poorest 50% of Thais now hold only 1.7% of the country’s wealth.


But SLAPPs are on the rise globally - with Thailand offering a handy template for the rich and powerful around the world who want to shut down any criticism levelled against them.


In the UK, investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr was hit with a libel SLAPP in July by multimillionaire Leave.EU founder Arron Banks for her groundbreaking reporting on the links between Cambridge Analytica, Trump, Russia and the Brexit referendum.  


Her lawyers say the case is “entirely without merit” but intended to bankrupt her so she stops her investigations. Her legal fees could top £1million.


SLAPPs are also proliferating in the US, with companies even using them to make people retract negative online reviews.




The report’s authors are calling on the Thai authorities to pledge that going forward, it adheres to the UN resolution on human rights defenders which it signed up to in December 2017, to uphold its commitments under domestic and international law, and that no person faces spurious litigation aimed at shutting down freedom of speech. They also want the government to decriminalise defamation - and for the use of SLAPPs to be outlawed. around the world.


To read the full study, click here.

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