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BBC Reporter's Criminal Defamation Trial Begins in Thailand

British BBC correspondent Jonathan Head enters the provincial court at the start of his trial, Aug. 23, 2017, on the southern island of Phuket, Thailand.

A British BBC correspondent's trial began in Thailand on Wednesday in a criminal defamation case involving a report on foreigners being defrauded of property.

The case against Jonathan Head, BBC's Southeast Asia correspondent, has been criticized as an example of how Thailand's harsh criminal defamation laws can be used to intimidate journalists.

Head had reported about a British expatriate whose Thai wife allegedly defrauded him of properties on the southern resort island of Phuket by forging his signature on multiple occasions.

The criminal complaint against Head and the expatriate, Ian Rance, was brought by a Thai lawyer, Pratuan Thanarak, who says he was defamed by an allegation in the report that he had notarized Rance's forged signature, allowing the wife to transfer properties.

If found guilty, Head could face up to two years in prison for online criminal defamation and five years under a law regulating online content. Rance was charged only with criminal defamation, which carries a one-year maximum sentence.

Pratuan's complaint said the BBC report caused the public to perceive him as a "deceitful lawyer" and "an unethical lawyer."

In February, the American-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for an end to the use in Thailand of criminal defamation charges against journalists.

"The use of criminal defamation complaints in Thailand has a chilling effect on journalists who fear being bogged down in time-consuming and expensive litigation," Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a statement.

The statement also mentioned a 2013 criminal defamation case filed by the Royal Thai Navy against Phuketwan, a small news website, for republishing a Reuters report that Thai naval forces had profited from trafficking ethnic Rohingya. Phuketwan was forced to close for financial reasons during the trial, with one of its reporters saying he had spent nearly one-third of his work time preparing his defense and that local advertisers had stopped taking ads on Phuketwan for fear of official reprisals, the statement said.

Earlier this month, a prominent Thai journalist was charged with sedition and violation of the country's computer law for online postings concerning politics.