An American Spent 2 Nights in Jail After Posting Negative Reviews of a Thai Hotel
What started as a complaint over a $16 corkage fee for bringing gin to a hotel restaurant in Thailand has landed an American man in jail. After writing negative reviews online, he’s being charged with defamation — and could be sentenced to up to two years in prison, according to a report in The New York Times. The AP reports that it could be as long as seven years.
Wesley Barnes, an American living and working in Thailand, was staying on the Thai island of Koh Chang at the Sea View Koh Chang resort on June 27 when he was made aware of the additional charge of 500 baht, equivalent to about $16 USD. He spoke with a restaurant director — and a compromise was reached that he and his guest could pour from their own bottle without a charge. Both the hotel and Barnes agree on that part of the story.
However, Barnes says that after the incident, he saw a manager mistreat an employee, which led to his critical post on Tripadvisor, according to the AP.
One of his posts, seen here in a screenshot provided by the hotel, read, “Do not sleep here! Don’t support modern day slavery of Thai people!” Though the review was posted, the hotel reported it, and it was taken down after a week for violating Tripadvisor’s guidelines.
Barnes posted another Tripadvisor review on July 3 — and another two on Google, each about one or two weeks apart, according to the hotel. One of the other reviews reported read, “Avoid this place as if it was the Coronavirus!”
“Before filing a complaint with the authorities, we attempted to contact the guest multiple times via emails, Tripadvisor, and phone calls in order to settle this dispute amicably,” the resort’s statement reads. “None of our communications were successful, with the guest only responding to our messages after his arrest.”
Barnes, who says he has lost his job teaching English in Thailand, was arrested earlier this month and taken back to Koh Chang by authorities. Since he arrived on Saturday, Sept. 12, he wasn’t able to post the 100,000 baht (about $3,164 USD) bail until Monday, and spent two nights in jail.
The property admits that the action was a bit extreme. “We agree that using a defamation law may be viewed as excessive for this situation,” the hotel said in the statement. “However, the guest refused to respond to our attempts at communication and instead continued to persistently post negative and untrue reviews of our business. We simply want to ensure that these untrue reviews are stopped.”
The incident received global attention after travel blogger Richard Barrow, who is a friend of a friend of Barnes’, tweeted about the case. “Thailand’s defamation laws are very severe, in particular when it comes to online content,” Barrow wrote, explaining that Barnes had posted a one-star review. “In most cases, defamation laws are good as they are there to protect us. But it is sometimes abused. To have someone arrested at their workplace for posting a negative review is surely a step too far.”
He also noted that the resort’s move could have a negative effect on Thailand as a travel destination overall: “It not only damages the reputation of the resort, but also the reputation of Thailand. This should have been settled privately. Now the world knows that if a tourist posts a negative hotel review in Thailand they risk going to prison.”
In a statement sent to T+L, Tripadvisor wrote, "Tripadvisor is opposed to the idea that a traveler can be prosecuted for expressing opinions. Thankfully, on a global basis, prosecutions like this are rare and hundreds of millions of travelers are able to express themselves freely without facing criminal charges...We continue to support our users' right to give honest, positive or negative, constructive feedback...We are continuing our investigation into this incident and have reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand."