Phuketwan Journalists Set to Stand Trial in Thailand Over Coverage of Rohingya Trafficking

By Nyein Nyein 13 July 2015

CHIANG MAI — Two journalists with a Thailand-based news website are set to face trial on Tuesday on charges related to the republication of material from a Reuters news agency story in July 2013 alleging members of the Thai military were involved in human trafficking.

The Thai navy filed a lawsuit against Phuketwan’s editor Alan Morison and reporter Chutima Sidasathian in December 2013 for defamation and for violating the Computer Crime Act over a single paragraph the news site republished from a Reuters article alleging links between Thai officialdom and the trafficking of Muslim Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma.

The Thai navy did not pursue Reuters over the original story which formed part of an investigation that won its authors’ a prestigious Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

Alan Morison, an Australian journalist who founded Phuketwan in 2008, said the website would not be updated for the duration of the trial and its immediate future remained unclear.

“We are not really sure what will happen [after the court hearing],” Morison told The Irrawaddy on the eve of the trial which is due to run from July 14-16 at Phuket Provincial Court.

He said the pending charges had curtailed the output of the Phuket-based news outlet which is known for its reporting on the plight of Rohingya fleeing Burma’s Arakan State by boat in search of refuge abroad.

“The past 18 months since the Royal Thai Navy laid the charges against us have made it very difficult because we’ve just devoted more and more of our time to defending ourselves and we haven’t been able to cover the issues we’d like to cover, especially the Rohingya exodus that we have been covering for seven years,” Morison said.

“It was probably part of the plan for the Royal Thai Navy in laying the charges to shut down Phuketwan and they may well achieve that because they’ve made life very difficult for us.”

Since the lawsuit was filed, conditions for journalists working in Thailand have further deteriorated following a military coup in May 2014. Coup leader and prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly hit out at journalists for critical news coverage and threatened to close down outlets that failed to toe the line.

“I think it’s sad for Thailand that this case is being pursued, because the relationship between the media and military is very important in any democracy,” Morison told The Irrawaddy.

“At the moment, because the government has allowed this case to go ahead, it’s a sign that they have a view about the relationship that really doesn’t suit any democracy.”

On July 9, a group of eight international and regional organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, issued a joint letter to the Thai prime minister urging him to drop all charges against the two Phuketwan journalists, labeling them in violation of Thailand’s commitments under international law.

The organizations said the Computer Crime Act under which the journalists are charged was “clearly being used by the government in this case to suppress media freedom and silence the voice of Phuketwan.”