An American man living in Thailand was unhappy with a resort hotel he wanted to charge him a $ 15 cork to bring his own bottle of jeans to the restaurant. He disagreed with a manager and then later did what has become second nature to disgruntled tourists: he posted negative reviews about the resort on the internet.
The hotel, the Sea View Koh Chang resort on Koh Chang Island, was just as unhappy with the visitor and what he saw as his personal campaign to tarnish his reputation. Unable to contact him or stop posting to TripAdvisor, the resort has lodged a complaint with Thai police under the country’s defamation law.
As a result, the visitor, Wesley Barnes, was arrested this month and spent a weekend in jail. If convicted of defamation, he faces up to two years in prison.
If Sea View hoped to regain its good name, asking for help from the police, it was badly fired. Mr Barnes’ arrest has sparked online condemnation, negative news and a spate of bad reviews for the resort. A hotel manager said the resort had received death threats from foreigners.
“I’m not sure why geniuses believe that locking someone up for ‘damage to their reputation’ with a worthy bad review is going to help their reputation,” read a Google review posted Monday by someone called Wholesome Bot
Arrest under defamation law is also a bad omen for Thailand, which is desperate to rebuild a tourism industry hit by the coronavirus. One of its strategies is to encourage people living in Thailand to travel within the country.
Thailand is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world and tourism is an important part of its economy. But to curb the virus, the government banned all foreign travelers in April and is now trying to find ways to reopen the country safely.
Human rights defenders have long criticized Thailand’s defamation law, which can lead to criminal charges for speech and is sometimes used by business interests to silence critics.
In a case last year, a court in Lopburi County found a journalist, Suchanee Cloitre, guilty of defamation for posting a tweet in 2016 criticizing the work practices of Thammakaset Co., the poultry farm company. Ms Suchanee, a television journalist, was sentenced to two years in prison. She is attractive. The case was one of more than a dozen filed by the company against journalists, workers and activists.
Even tougher is the country’s law, which can impose a 15-year sentence for insulting the king of Thailand. Protesters who were holding demonstrations against the monarch in recent weeks is in danger of being prosecuted under this law.
The Koh Chang controversy was revealed by a popular travel blogger, Richard Barrow, in Twitter posts. After Mr Barrow reported the arrest, Sea View and Mr Barnes sent him statements giving their own accounts of what had happened, which Mr Barrow also published.
Mr Barnes said he was “shocked” by the end of the cork during his stay in June and complained to the server. A manager intervened and after a discussion in which they both showed “one attitude”, Mr Barnes acknowledged, the manager resigned.
Mr Barnes said he later saw the same manager chewing on an employee and concluded that “there was a master / slave mentality”. He decided at that moment to write a review.
As it turns out, he did not publish just one review, but several on TripAdvisor and Google gave the hotel the lowest possible rating and further criticized the management. A post angered the resort by saying, “Avoid this place as if it were Coronavirus!”
Mr Barnes said after his arrest, he was taken by police back to Ko Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand for a one-hour flight southeast of Bangkok. By the time he arrived on Saturday, September 12, it was too late to get bail and he spent two nights in jail before being released the following Monday.
Sea View said in a statement that it had contacted Mr Barnes to try to resolve the situation amicably, but had never received a response. The hotel said it went to the police only as a last resort to stop the flow of bad comments.
“We agree that the use of defamation law may be considered excessive for this situation,” the hotel acknowledged. “However, the visitor refused to respond to our communication attempts and instead continued to post persistently negative and untrue reviews about our business.”
The statement added: “We just want to make sure that these untrue criticisms stop and we had no way of negotiating the matter with the visitor until the complaint was lodged with the authorities.”