News of the change of heart by the highly-regarded Vienna-based organisation came a few days ago in an email to Phuketwan rescinding an invitation to reporter Chutima Sidasathian to speak.
Khun Chutima has been covering the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and their exodus through Thailand for several years.
She and her Australian colleague Alan Morison are being sued for criminal defamation and a Computer Crimes Act count by the Royal Thai Navy over republication of a 41-word paragraph that was written by two Reuters journalists as part of a series on the Rohingya. The series later won a Pulitzer Prize.
''The IPI takes a strong stand against criminal defamation,'' Morison said today.
''We were looking forward to having Khun Chutima tell other journalists about the case and the treatment of the Rohingya - the group described by the UN as the most persecuted people in the world.
''Lack of sponsorship was cited as the reason for the cancellation, but it's difficult to believe that Burmese authorities would have allowed the IPI to discuss the issue.
''The word 'Rohingya' cannot be spoken openly in the country. President Obama showed courage to use it there last year.''
Morison's passport is being held by the court pending resumption of the trial on Phuket in July. He applied to travel to the IPI congress and had his passport returned hours before Khun Chutima's invitation was cancelled.
''We have no wish to embarrass the IPI because of all its good work,'' Morison said. ''However, the fact is the congress is being held in Burma, where discussion of the Rohingya is forbidden.''
Morison and Khun Chutima face up to seven years in jail but continue to report on the Rohingya exodus through Thailand.
Dear Ms. Sidasathian,
On behalf of the International Press Institute (IPI), the global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 120 countries, I would like to extend to you an invitation to participate as a speaker at next year's IPI World Congress and General Assembly, which will be held in Yangon, Myanmar from 27 to 29 March 2015.
As you know, IPI is dedicated to the furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom, the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, the promotion of the free flow of news and information, and the improvement of the practices of journalism.
The IPI World Congress, held each year in a different country, often focuses on countries or regions of the world that are regarded as political ''hot spots'' or undergoing substantial transformation. The 2015 World Congress will be no exception, as Myanmar is certainly a country that is witnessing profound political, economic, and social changes.
The Myanmar Congress, which will have the added value of celebrating IPI's 65th anniversary, will bring together prominent politicians, experts, and leading members of the world's media community to discuss current issues related to the challenges facing Myanmar, the region, and the world, as well as topics dealing with press freedom.
In this connection, we would be extremely pleased if you could participate as a speaker in the session ''Reporting Crimes Against Humanity: From Boston to Bangkok'', on Friday, 27 March 2015 (please see attached draft programme).
We, of course, will cover your travel (economy class flights only) and accommodation for 3 nights.
We sincerely hope that you will be able to participate in this important event and look forward to receiving your positive response as soon as possible.
Alison Bethel McKenzie
International Press Institute
Please forgive my late reply, but we have been trying to find a way to bring Chutima to the Congress in Yangon and unfortunately, we have not been successful in finding any funding.
As it happens, we recently changed leadership at IPI. Our Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie stepped down at the end of 2014 and we are undergoing some restructuring. Our new Interim Executive Director is Ms. Barbara Trionfi (copied here).
Unfortunately, due to the fact that we could not find any sponsors for the human trafficking panel, we had to take it off the program for the IPI World Congress in Myanmar. We initially had some interest from potential sponsors but their support fell through at the last minute.
Due to this fact and budgetary constraints we cannot afford to cover any of the costs related to the human trafficking panel. We were also trying to find a sponsor who would fund Chutima's travel to attend the event as a participant, but there were concerns if she would be able to travel, due to the pending case against her and that funding also unfortunately fell through.
I am very sorry about these developments and hope that this does not cause too much inconvenience and that you will understand the difficult situation we are in.
Should Chutima still be interested in attending the Myanmar Congress as a participant, please let me know, as we would be happy to waive her registration fee.
Best regards from Vienna,
Membership and Global Relations Manager
International Press Institute (IPI)
Thank you for your frank response. It's appreciated.
Back in September, we were surprised and delighted by the initial invitation to speak at the IPI General Assembly, just as we are surprised and a little shocked to find five months later that the invitation is no longer there.
It's also more than a little disturbing to be told that the problem lies with the inability of the IPI to find sponsors for a panel on human trafficking. Human trafficking is one of the most important international issues right now. Sponsors should be clamoring to have it covered.
However, the issue concerning Phuketwan that we thought led to the invitation to speak to IPI was more one of media freedom.
Are you aware that two Phuketwan journalists are being sued by the Royal Thai Navy using the much-criticised criminal defamation and Computer Crimes Act legislation in Thailand?
The draconian legal action came because Phuketwan published excerpts from a Reuters report, including word-for-word a paragraph that subsequently formed part of a series on the Rohingya boatpeople that won the news agency a Pulitzer Prize.
After receiving the IPI invitation, I looked up Google and found the following: ''The International Press Institute is a global organisation dedicated to the promotion and protection of press freedom and the improvement of journalism practices.''
Amid great hardship, Phuketwan is continuing to report on human trafficking and the epic saga of the boatpeople. However, we figured the issue of media freedom was why the invitation came to Khun Chutima from the IPI.
The unprecedented case against Phuketwan has brought statements in support from the UN's human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and many other bodies, including journalists' unions.
This is because what was a human trafficking issue became a media freedom issue as well when we were sued by the Royal Thai Navy. Have all of the panel discussions on media freedom at the annual general meeting also been cancelled?
As you very kindly gave us permission to report that we had been invited to speak at the IPI gathering, we will now be obliged to explain to all of our readers that the invitation has been cancelled. We will finish writing the speech that Khun Chutima would have made in Burma, and publish it.
There was never a problem with her being allowed to attend. Khun Chutima still possesses her passport and last year spoke to Australian journalists at the Melbourne Press Club and academics at Sydney University about the issue of media freedom raised by the legal action taken over the boatpeople.
On Tuesday, I was granted permission from the Thai court to have my passport returned to travel to Burma. We were making preparations to travel to Bangkok to seek visas from the Burmese embassy when your email arrived.
I wonder: Would it be possible, perhaps, for the IPI to disseminate the speech that Chutima Sidasathian would have made had her invitation not been rescinded?
We hope others who are attending the annual general meeting will now make the points that we would have made about media freedom in Southeast Asia, and the importance of media freedom to future international coverage of human trafficking everywhere.