Friday, May 02, 2008

Another Reason Not to Shop at Tesco

Concerns about the dominance of Tesco and other supermarkets in Britain are now being played out in the Asian market as Tesco seeks to expand its operations within Thailand.

Tesco Lotus (as the Thai branch of the business is called) has been opening stores at a rapid rate in Thailand. The company owns over 300 stores across the country and has established itself as the largest supermarket chain in Thailand.

As has been the case in Britain, the growth of the Tesco brand in Thailand has not been without its dissenters. In the last six months, however, three of these critics have found themselves on the receiving end of multi-million dollar libel suits filed by Tesco Lotus.

Jit Siratranont is a former MP and currently vice-general secretary of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. He is accused by Tesco Lotus of criminal libel in connection with a speech made at Bangkok's Kasetsart University in November 2007 in which he stated that Tesco had an "aggressive policy of expansion." If successful in their law suit, Tesco will seek damages of up to 1.1 bn bhat (£17.5 M) from Mr Siratranont. A prison sentence is also possible.

Kamol Kamoltrakul, a writer at the Bangkok Business News, was served with a writ in January of this year claiming she had caused damage to Tesco Lotus through an article critical of the company's rapid expansion, alleging that it was harming smaller grocers. Tesco is seeking 100m baht (£1.6m) in damages from the journalist.

Subsequently, columnist Nongnart Harnvilai was sued for 100m baht (£1.6m) for writing in the same paper that Tesco no longer "loved"' Thais. Tesco Lotus claims that over £1m of damage to their business reputation has been caused by this article.

Tesco Lotus has been strongly criticised by writers' organisations for filing these law suits.
“Tesco Lotus has asked for a combined 1,200 million baht (US $38.7 million) as monetary damages from the three cases. It did not intend to win the compensation awards. But it aimed to stop news reporting on its rapid business expansion and criticism on its impact on small Thai retailers,”
claims the Thai Journalists Association.

In a similar vein, The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) released a statement strongly condemning the suits filed by Tesco Lotus:

“SEAPA sees the Tesco Lotus suits as harassment pure and simple, not only of consumer advocates and Thai civil society actors, but of journalists and commentators in general.”

Earlier this year, the Citizen Media Network in Northern Thailand released an open letter to the Thai public claiming Tesco’s legal action threatens freedom of speech and fair criticism. The group urged the public to join its fight against the expansion of Tesco Lotus stores.

From the UK, Jo Glanville from the Index on Censorship, says "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."

The New York-based
Committee to Protect Journalists has initiated an international letter writing campaign to Tesco Lotus urging them to drop the civil law suits against the three individuals, describing the claims as "punitive and a direct threat to press freedom and free public commentary" and adding that,
"Global experience shows that once the precedent of excessive civil complaints is established the threat of future suits has a chilling effect on the press and reporters’ and editors’ willingness to pursue critical news stories."
Details of CPJ's campaign can be found here. Letters or faxes to Tesco Lotus expressing your views on the matter can be sent directly to:

Mr. Darmp Sukontasap
Senior Vice President
Corporate and Legal Affairs
Tesco Lotus PLC
Bangkok, Thailand

Fax: +66 02 797 9808

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