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American faces prison in Thailand over bad hotel review

An American man is facing two years in prison in Thailand after posting negative online reviews of a hotel resort.

The Sea View Resort in Koh Chang accused Wesley Barnes of “a slanderous campaign” over the reviews, and filed a police complaint under the country’s harsh defamation laws.

Barnes was arrested this month and held in a jail for two nights, before being freed on bail.

He had stayed at the resort in June and had disagreed with staff who tried to charge a corkage fee for alcohol he and a friend had brought on to the premises. He told the Guardian that he felt the hotel’s manager was aggressive.

Barnes later submitted negative reviews of the hotel online, including one that said the resort’s foreign management “treat the staff like slaves”. Barnes, however, maintains that the review, which compared the resort to “modern day slavery”, was never published. He said he received an email from Tripadvisor stating “we cannot publish your contribution as it does not meet our review guidelines”.

Another review, which can be seen online on Tripadvisor, said staff “act like they don’t want anyone there”.

The resort said that it had initially tried to reach Barnes directly to resolve the matter, but took legal action because multiple reviews had been posted across different platforms, weeks apart.

“We have no problem with honest reviews, as you can see, many negative reviews are still published. It’s the malicious defamation ones that are a problem,” the Sea View Resort said in a statement. “We chose to file a complaint to serve as a deterrent, as we understood he may continue to write reviews week after week for the near future.”

Koh Chang police confirmed that a complaint had been filed and that Barnes was accused of causing “damage to the reputation of the hotel”, and of quarrelling with staff over not paying a corkage fee.

Barnes, who works in Thailand, said he was arrested by immigration police and that his passport had been taken away. He is due to return to court on 6 October.

Barnes said he fears going to prison and that he had lost his job as a result of the publicity surrounding his arrest.

The resort said that coverage of the case has caused it to be hit by further hostile online reviews, and prompted intimidation of its staff.

The incident comes as Thailand’s tourism industry grapples with the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The country has managed to avoid a major outbreak, but its borders remain shut to foreign visitors, who are crucial to the tourism sector.

Defamation is a criminal offence in Thailand, carrying a maximum sentence of two years in prison, along with a 200,000 baht (£4,915) fine. Rights groups have long warned that the law is draconian, and that it has been abused to silence activists and journalists. Unlike in many other countries, truth cannot automatically be relied upon as a defence.

Last year, media groups criticised a decision to sentence journalist Suchanee Cloitre to two years in jail for sending a tweet about a legal dispute over working conditions at the Thammakaset farm.

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