Sue the messenger, lawsuit farce on ‘death island’

For referring factually to the name recently attached to the island by outsiders, the Samui Times online news feed faces bogus charges of defamation of the province, and under the Computer Crime Act. ( Picture - Elise Dallemagne)

Instead of encouraging concerted efforts from all sides to dig deeper for the truth surrounding the death of 30-year-old Belgian tourist Elise Dallemagne on Koh Tao, authorities in Surat Thani choose to proceed with a disgraceful act — a lawsuit against a local English-language news website which broke the story.

As questions over the dubious circumstances of the death of Dallemagne on April 27 still linger, authorities in the province, one of Thailand’s key southern tourism hubs, on Tuesday decided to take legal action against the Samui Times.

Claiming its coverage is the “reporting of misinformation” which “caused misunderstanding” over safety on the island among tourists, they have assigned Phangan district official Krerkkrai Songthani to file a libel suit and bring cyber crime charges against the news outlet at the Koh Tao police station.


This lawsuit threat against the messenger, whose reporting brought the case to light and prompted investigators from Bangkok to reopen the case wrapped up by the Koh Tao police, will not help boost confidence among tourists. Nor will it help restore the reputation of the island.

This move is pure intimidation against the small media outlet. It also undermines the public’s right to know about what actually happened there. During the past three years, seven tourists have died on the island while another has gone and remains missing.

True, the number of foreigner deaths there may not outdo other tourist destinations. But several dubious circumstances surrounding these deaths and how the police handled the cases have given the island international notoriety.

Questions over the death of Dallemagne have been raised by her mother, Michele van Egten, who does not believe her daughter committed suicide by using a rope to hang herself as the police say. She says police have not given her a final autopsy report.

She still questions why her daughter’s mobile phone, found next to her dead body, has gone missing and why her luggage showed up in Chumphon without her.

As police collect evidence and witness accounts on the island, provincial authorities and business operators there believe the online newspaper’s reports and its use of the term “death island” hurt the island’s reputation and can drive away tourists. The term has, in fact, been previously used by many international media outlets.

Authorities and business operators should offer their version of information to the newspaper to correct their “misinformation”, not a lawsuit.

They should rather offer help to the police to solve the case and, for example, urge local people to share information they have about the whereabouts of the Belgian tourist prior to her death.

They should have reviewed safety measures on the island and called for better protection for tourists.

But they should not do what they plan to do. A lawsuit against the newspaper will be seen, domestically and internationally, as an effort to suppress facts from coming to light.

Bringing defamation and Computer Crime Act charges against journalists is a conventional and convenient avenue for authorities and individuals in Thailand to make it difficult for them to carry on with their investigative reporting.

In late 2013, the navy brought a lawsuit against Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian for their reporting on human trafficking of Rohingya people. They were acquitted in 2015.

More recently, a Phuket lawyer brought a case against Bangkok-based BBC correspondent Jonathan Head over his investigation into fraud on the island.

The Surat Thani authorities’ lawsuit threat against the Samui Times is a window-dressing effort that cannot make the island less notorious for tourists as long as questions about this and other deaths and missing persons cases remain unanswered. – Bangkok Post

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