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Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 12:32 UK

Thai Tesco 'won't silence me'

By Becky Branford
BBC News

A Thai journalist being sued by Tesco has vowed to continue his campaign against the multinational retailing giant.

A shopper in a Tesco Lotus shop in Thailand
Tesco is a major player in the Thai retail market
Tesco's Thai subsidiary, Tesco Lotus, is seeking damages of 100m baht ($3.2m; 1.6m) from columnist and academic Kamol Kamoltrakul.

It says he was behind a "sustained and malicious campaign" which seriously defamed the store.

It is also suing Thai politician Jit Siratranot and another journalist, Nongnart Harnwilai, fellow critics of the company's rapid expansion in Thailand.

But in an interview with the BBC, Mr Kamol claimed the company's action aimed "to silence me" and other critics.

Tesco has been operating in Thailand for a decade. In addition to the 370 stores it already operates, it planned to open a further 162 in 2007-8, according to its annual review published on its website.

Error

Mr Kamol says the suit filed against him concerns an article he penned for Bangkokbiznews on 29 October, in which he claimed superstores were driving out local so-called "Mom-and-Pop" stores and threatened to ruin the fortunes of millions of Thais.

Kamol Kamoltrakul, a Thai journalist being sued by supermarket giant Tesco
Tesco know I don't have that kind of money, so why do they do it? The only thing I can think is that they want to silence me
Kamol Kamoltrakul

In the same article, Mr Kamol alleged Tesco was guilty of so-called "creative accounting" - the practice of creating complex accounting structures which permit the lowest possible level of tax to be paid.

He also claimed that Tesco's Thailand operation provided the company with 37% of its global income.

Mr Kamol now admits he was mistaken in the last allegation, acknowledging that the true figure is closer to 3.7%.

But he says Tesco is exploiting his error in order to "scare other journalists".

"I was shocked that I was sued for this amount of money," Mr Kamol - a neat, bespectacled, softly-spoken man in his late 50s - told the BBC News website.

"It's nonsense. Tesco know I don't have that kind of money, so why do they do it? The only thing I can think is that they want to silence me."

Mr Kamol says he is worried Tesco could win - and says that if they do, under Thai law he could lose his home.

The right to free speech does not of course imply the right to defame us. In Thailand, Tesco Lotus has been seriously defamed in a sustained and malicious campaign
Tesco statement

Some observers have argued that Tesco is being singled out as a scapegoat by those, including Mr Kamol, whose criticism could apply to multinational retailers in general.

But Mr Kamol is adamant that Tesco is the prime offender, because it sells "everything" (and thus poses a threat to a huge range of local businesses) and has pursued an especially aggressive expansion strategy.

Wider strategy?

Mr Kamol was in the UK on the invitation of the Index on Censorship, a group which campaigns for freedom of speech.

The Index on Censorship and other, mainly British, campaign groups which have rallied around his cause, point to what they say is a new strategy by the multinational, both in the UK and abroad.

"What you're seeing that's new is the globalisation of a chilling effect on free speech, where you've got this multinational linking up from Thailand to the UK," Jo Glanville, from the Index on Censorship, told the BBC News website.

She points to the announcement last month that Tesco is suing the UK Guardian newspaper over a series of articles which alleged the supermarket chain was avoiding tax.

Tesco would not comment on the specific allegations made by Mr Kamol.

But it did supply a statement: "Tesco does not have a policy of using legal action to silence its critics. In fact until now we have never had to resort to legal proceedings to defend our reputation."

'Deeply misleading'

"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," Tesco said.

"In Thailand, Tesco Lotus has been seriously defamed in a sustained and malicious campaign over a number of months.

"In the UK, The Guardian made a series of very damaging allegations relating to Tesco's tax affairs despite our clear indications to the paper in advance that these were utterly false and that we would defend our reputation if necessary. The Guardian was given the opportunity to retract the allegations but chose not to do so.

"In both cases we have been left no option other than to take legal action - a step we would not consider unless we believed it was entirely justified. We still hope the matters can be resolved by agreement, but if not we will have to resort to the courts to restore our reputation."


SEE ALSO
Tesco sees profit rise to 2.8bn
15 Apr 08 |  Business
Foreign growth key to Tesco goals
25 Apr 06 |  Business
Tesco's Thai plans under threat
27 Sep 06 |  Business
Threat to Tesco's Thai expansion
15 Sep 06 |  Business
Tesco under attack in Thailand
14 Nov 01 |  Business

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