'Tesco out to gag me with £1.6m action'

The journalist being sued by Tesco in Thailand for £1.6m earned £16 for the column at the centre of the claim.

Columnist and academic Kamol Kamoltrakul is being sued for an article published in Thai language newspaper Bangkok Business News, in which he expressed concern at Tesco’s expansion plans in Thailand.

Speaking to Press Gazette, 58-year-old Kamoltrakul said that the claim by Tesco Lotus could destroy him: ‘If I lose the case, they will seize my house and I will be on to the street.”

Kamoltrakul, who is a freelance business journalist and economics lecturer, earns 1,000 baht, or £16, for his regular business column. Tesco is suing him personally for 100m baht, or £1.6m.

Tesco Lotus, which Tesco Stores Ltd runs in partnership with a Thai company, Sunthorn Arunanondchai and Family, has launched three lawsuits against Thai individuals this year. Tesco Stores is also suing The Guardian newspaper in the UK for libel and ‘malicious falsehood”.

Tesco Lotus has issued writs against another full-time staff writer on Bangkok Business News for making similar arguments against the company, and a former Thai MP, who is also accused of criminal libel and could face up to two years in prison.

Kamoltrakul admits that he made a factual error in his column printed last October, which was repeated by the former MP Jit Siratranont in a speech. It suggested Tesco made 37 per cent of its income from Thailand, when the figure is closer to 3.7 per cent.

But Kamoltrakul insists his argument against aggressive expansion stands, and that Tesco is engaging in heavy-handed tactics aimed at shutting down free speech.

He said: ‘Tesco wants to silence me with a lawsuit – it has a hidden agenda and it wants to immediately stop criticism.”

Kamoltrakul’s is the first case under a new Thai law introduced this year that allows Tesco to sue the individual instead of the newspaper.

Kamoltrakul does not have financial backing for his case and is seeking support before his first court appearance on 6 May.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said the cases could be seen as a concerted bid by Tesco to stamp out criticism.

He told Press Gazette: ‘It is puzzling to say the least to see what looks to any outsider like the pattern of a company suing four libel writs in four months. It’s hard to argue that it is not a pattern. I think it is a pattern of behaviour agreed in London.”

‘To use the law of criminal libel – which they are using in one of the other actions – seems to me incredibly menacing and seems to be done with the purpose of inhibiting criticism. If these guys can’t pay the fine, the penalties are bankruptcy and debtor’s jails, which are very unpleasant places. It’s a very heavy way of treating critics.”

Rusbridger said he found the action against his own newspaper ‘bewildering”, adding: ‘The Thai action will backfire on them. It has now come to international attention.”

The Tesco libel and malicious falsehood writ against The Guardian followed what the supermarket said were mistakes in a piece about Tesco’s tax avoidance practices.

Tesco is also seeking ‘special damages’for financial loss, which unlike normal libel damages, are uncapped and could run into millions.

Guardian Media Group chief executive Carolyn McCall has resigned from the Tesco board in the wake of the row.

A Tesco spokesman said: ‘Tesco does not have a policy of using legal action to silence its critics. In fact, until now we have never had to issue legal proceedings to defend our reputation.

‘The ongoing cases in Thailand and the UK are entirely unrelated. Neither has anything to do with restricting free speech and it would be deeply misleading to suggest they do. The right to free speech does not, of course, imply the right to defame us.”

The NUJ is asking members to write to Tesco and is asking MPs to table an early-day motion on the issue.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: ‘Tesco is seeking to intimidate its critics and those journalists who investigate its business practices.”

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