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Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian before the charges were laid

Journalists Facing Jail in Thailand Need More Help, Says Rights Group

Wednesday, July 8, 2015
PHUKET: One of Australia's oldest and best-regarded human rights organisations, Liberty Victoria, is urging renewed Australian action over the ''harsh media crackdown'' in Thailand.

The Liberty Victoria media release reads as follows:

THE Federal Government is urged to redouble its efforts to help an Australian journalist and his colleague facing charges of criminal defamation and computer crimes in Thailand.

''Just as in the case of Peter Greste in Egypt we have a case of a harsh crackdown on the media,'' said the president of Liberty Victoria, George Georgiou SC.

''In Egypt Greste was reporting on unrest inside the country. In Thailand the story has been on human rights abuses against ethnic Rohingya migrants.''

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop raised the case on a visit to Thailand in May and Australian diplomats have been reported as taking a firm stand.

The editor of the tiny news website Phuketwan.com, Alan Morison, and journalist Chituma Sidasathian are due to go on trial on July 14, more than 18 months after charges were laid by a Thai navy official.

They arose from a 2013 report on the independent site, incorporating one sentence from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters news agency special investigation incriminating several Thai naval officers in the trafficking of Rohingya migrants.

Reuters has not been charged and the Thai naval forces deny any trafficking.

The refugees flee ethnic cleansing in Burma for the Phuket coast. As well, many bodies have recently been found buried in makeshift camps inside Thailand.

''This is a large-scale human tragedy requiring the help of Australia as a friendly neighbor,'' Mr Georgiou said.

''This news site is one of the few agencies pursuing the story of the Rohingya, whose treatment has become an urgent international concern.

''Prosecuting journalists serves little purpose other than to strengthen the military junta's control of the media.''

The journalists face up to seven years in prison.

Although the charges were laid by the previous civilian government they have been maintained by the military after taking power in a coup in May last year.

info@libertyvictoria.org.au

Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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If they are found guilty will the jail time begin immediately, or is that announced later?

Posted by BobLow on July 8, 2015 08:47

Editor Comment:

The judge is likely to take time to consider his or her verdict. There is also the prospect of an appeal.

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Dear Ed

I confirm that I have been concerned about inaccurate media releases and press reporting about your case.

I refer in particular to a very long comment of mine that you published on Phuketwan on 4 July 2015.

It seems fairly clear that some NGOs and media sources are simply reprinting each other's errors - some of which occur when people start paraphrasing and no one goes to the effort of examing the original documents such as the Phuketwan story of 17 July 2013.

The relevant paragraph in that story commences with the words " The Thai naval forces".

Contrary to what might be suggested in the above media release, that paragraph did not incriminate any Thai naval officers.

I shall expand on this in another comment to follow.

Ian Yarwood
Solicitor - Perth, Western Australia

Posted by Ian Yarwood on July 8, 2015 08:47

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Sorry we are not in Phuket to offer support directly. Should it go ahead next week we will follow the hearing with much interest. Good luck and may common sense and sanity prevail.

Posted by DaveMc60 on July 8, 2015 10:24

Editor Comment:

Thank you, Dave.

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Hi Ed
I refer to my comment above and to the comment I made on 4 July 2015 (07:40) that was posted under the story with the Phuketwan headline: 'Phuket Trial of the Century Coming Soon.'

I confirm that in my view a great deal of the media reporting of your case has been misleading. It is my sincere hope that none of the misleading reporting will adversely affect your prospects in the trial that starts on 14 July 2015. I believe it has already led to some confusion in the minds of people who are following the case.

It could be quite counter-productive if busy, important people were misled or confused about the facts as to what your article said and what the Reuters article(s) said. It is not that busy, important people have short attention spans. The problem often arises because busy people have limited time to get to the bottom of things.

There were of course a series of Reuters articles including one dated 5 December 2013 (written by Jason Szep and Andrew R C Marshall) that directly pointed the finger at the ''Thai navy and marine police.'' (This story is still available on the internet)

A great deal of confusion would be eliminated if the NGOs that issue media releases and if the various news services that cover the case actually took the time to read your Phuketwan article of 17 July 2013 together with the relevant Reuters article dated 17 July 2013 written by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings. Both stories are still available on the internet.

Even Reuters has misrepresented its own story of 17 July 2013.

In the said Reuters article of 5 December 2013, Szep and Marshall incorrectly stated that: ''As Reuters reported in July, many of these refugees were waylaid in Thailand, where the Thai navy and marine police worked with smugglers to extract money for their onward trip to Malaysia.'' In fact, Reuter did not exactly report that on 17 July 2013. It is just an example of poor paraphrasing. It should be stressed that Phuketwan certainly did not write that!

Here is one sentence from the Reuters story of 17 July 2013: ''In addition to the Royal Thai Navy, the seas are patrolled by the Thai Marine Police and by local militias under the control of military commanders.'' There are no allegations in that sentence.

Here is a subsequent sentence in the Reuters story of 17 July 2013: ''Thai navy or militia commanders are then notified to intercept boats and sometimes guide them to pre-arranged spots, said the smuggler.'' That is a fairly vague accusation and is certainly not the same as what was written in the Reuters story of 5 December 2013.

One important and obvious difference is that ''Thai navy AND marine police'' is not the same as ''Thai navy OR militia commanders.'' The actual allegations in the rest of the sentences quoted are also different.

I note in passing the reference to ''local militias under the control of militia commanders'' and note that the Royal Thai Army Lieutenant General, Manus Kongpan turned himself in to authorities in early June 2015.

In the extract below I mention several terms that Reuters used but there are additional terms such as ''local militias under the control of militia commanders'' that could be included in the apparently umbrella term of ''Thai naval forces.'' Indeed, it is conceivable that ''Thai naval forces'' could include Thai pirates. The language of Reuters is very vague. The stories won a Pulitzer prize but I respectfully suggest that the stories will not win any prizes for plain English drafting or clear English drafting.

Below is an extract of my comment on Phuketwan Phuket Trial of the Century Coming Soon of 4 July 2015:

CLARIFYING SOME MATERIAL FACTS

Those readers with limited or no knowledge of the background facts would be well served by reading part of the open letter from Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) dated 5 January 2015 on its website and republished on 7 January 2015 on Phuketwan under the headline: Judicial Harassment in Thailand and Consular Protection of Mr Alan Morison. It is one of the few articles I have read on this matter that is really accurate in the reporting of the background facts.

Unfortunately, I have read many press releases, media reports, blogs and comments from readers of Thai websites that contain factual errors of varying degrees of importance. One particularly serious error in the media reports seems to have occurred when media outlets paraphrase each other's stories.

Many months ago, I read one disappointing letter from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Jenny Braddy (one of Alan Morison's sisters) that contained several misleading statements. Anyone who reads the LRWC article will also observe that, according to Jenny Braddy, the Australian Foreign Minister incorrectly asserted that British human rights activist, Andy Hall had his passport returned from a Thai court because he made an apology, when in fact he never made any apology. Andy Hall successfully defended a charge of criminal defamation in the Prakanong Court, Bangkok.

Some of the comments from readers of websites seem insightful but others are wildly inaccurate when making statements of fact.

Here is an example of an obvious but unimportant error from a reporter on one website: ''Morison and Khun Chutima had applied for a grant of $100,000.00 to help fund their bail.'' Their bail was 100,000 baht not anything like $100,000.00. http://www.thecitizen.org.au/news/australian-journalist-fears-rough-justice-thai-defamation-case

Here is another obvious but unimportant error from freelance journalist, Michael Sainsbury that was published on Phuketwan on 1 July 2015: ''Foreign Minister Julie Bishop raised the case with Prayuth on her visit to Thailand in April''. In fact, Foreign Minister Bishop was not in Thailand in April but she did raise the case with the Thai Deputy Prime Minister on 8 May 2015. (General Prayuth is the Thai Prime Minister not the Deputy PM).

Arguably the most misleading statement I have seen in a press release came from Human Rights Watch (''HRW'') on 16 April 2015: ''The charges centered on a paragraph in the Phuketwan online newspaper on July 17, 2013, that cited a Reuters investigative report alleging that some navy officials ''work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya,'' and that they earn about 2,000 baht (US$63) per Rohingya ''for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye.''

Unfortunately, this statement has been picked up copied and paraphrased by other news services including unfortunately Fairfax publications in Australia. The error then became like a virus.

The charges against the journalists are centred on one paragraph ''and one paragraph only - but HRW quoted from two paragraphs. The relevant paragraph did not refer to ''navy officials'' at all despite what was written by HRW. The relevant paragraph starts with the words ''The Thai naval forces'' which is an exceptionally vague term used by Reuters. In the context of the series of reports from Reuters ''Thai naval forces'' can include ''militia commanders'', Thai naval security forces and Thai Marine Police and certainly does not necessarily mean ''The Royal Thai Navy'' or ''navy officials'' (HRW's words). Nowhere in the relevant paragraph does the term ''navy officials'' appear and in fact that term appears nowhere in the Phuketwan story of 17 July 2013.

I am not merely splitting hairs. The precise words in the paragraph in the Phuketwan story are of vital importance. The relevant paragraph referred to ''Thai naval forces'' and not to ''The Royal Thai Navy.''

The bottom line is that in the relevant Reuters paragraph, republished by Phuketwan, Reuters did not point the finger at The Royal Thai Navy. This is the most fundamental and important fact to understand when trying to predict the events of the coming two weeks.

Reuters did (correctly or incorrectly) directly point the finger at The Royal Thai Navy in a subsequent story it published on 5 December 2013, some five months later. Most readers will be aware that despite this The Royal Thai Navy has not pursued Reuters or any other news services, just tiny Phuketwan.

It should not be lost on anyone that the conduct of The Royal Thai Navy has been dubious to say the least. It comes across as being a bully that wants to pick on the little guy (Phuketwan) but wishes to avoid a bigger target such as Reuters. It should also not be lost on anyone that an appropriate course of action for the police and prosecutors to take would be to investigate the reason(s) why The Royal Thai Navy targeted Phuketwan in particular.

It is worth noting that Phuketwan did publish a reply from The Royal Thai Navy three days after the story of 17 July 2013. Phuketwan also published a favorable story regarding The Royal Thai Navy on 18 December 2013. These actions would be important in a Western legal system (demonstrating an absence of malice) but these actions are even more important in the Thai legal system where the intentions of the person making the allegedly defamatory statement are very important.

Ian Yarwood
Solicitor - Perth, Western Australia.

Posted by Ian Yarwood on July 8, 2015 15:12

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(moderated)

Posted by gee on July 8, 2015 16:49

Editor Comment:

gee, you have named the wrong person so that throws into doubt your entire comment. It's not something we could publish anyway. Sorry.

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No problem. Let's hope common sense prevails.

Posted by gee on July 8, 2015 17:26

Editor Comment:

Thanks, gee.

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Is there anything right now us locals who support your work can do to help?

Posted by Tbs on July 8, 2015 17:42

Editor Comment:

Just about everything that can be done is being done. Thanks for the thought, Tbs.

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Dear Ed

As you know I have been commenting on this case very regularly for about ten months. I have also read a considerable amount of material in that time.

I think it is extremely difficult to identify anything of significance that a reasonable person could accuse you and Khun Chutima of having done wrong in relation to the Phuketwan story of 17 July 2013.

The only thing that I can find fault with is that in the lengthy Reuters story of 17 July 2013 there was a small denial tucked away in middle, which you did not initially print. The denial reads:

"The Thai navy and police denied any involvement in Rohingya smuggling. Manasvi Srisodapol, a Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that there has been no evidence of the navy trafficking or abusing Rohingya for several years."

To your credit you did print a denial from the Royal Thai Navy on 20 July 2013 - three days after the relevant story was published. I note that it does not appear that the Royal Thai Navy was concerned that you did not republish the said denial that appeared in the Reuters story.

Nothing happened for five months.

On 5 December 2013 Reuters published a further story that expressly criticized the Royal Thai Navy. Eleven days after that you learned that the Royal Thai Navy was in the process of laying charges against you. In those circumstances, many reasonable people would speculate (and I suppose it is speculation) that the Royal Thai Navy was actually upset by the Reuters story of 5 December 2013 and not so much by the paragraph in Phuketwan on 17 July 2013.

You have published several stories on Phuketwan trying to explain your position. You have published positive stories about the Royal Thai Navy. You have expressed ''deep regret'' for what has occurred. You have instigated numerous negotiations with the Thai authorities to try to resolve the dispute.

You have not given the Royal Thai Navy an apology but then the Royal Thai Navy has not to my knowledge explained to anyone precisely what it is that you have done that is wrong. In my opinion, if the Royal Thai Navy cannot precisely explain what you have done wrong then it should never have laid any charges against you. A possible argument that "Thai naval forces" means "the Royal Thai Navy" is hopeless, with the greatest respect to the Royal Thai Navy and its translator.

I confirm that I would not know whether or not the Royal Thai Navy was involved in human trafficking. I was not there. It does not appear that your case turns on the innocence or guilt of the Royal Thai Navy. You simply republished a paragraph from a reputable news service. The paragraph was wonderfully vague. The paragraph did not accuse the Royal Thai Navy of anything and neither did you.

I do not need to discuss the shortfalls in the conduct of the Royal Thai Navy or the Royal Thai Police or the Thai prosecutors or any other Thai officials. It would take far too long and most of it is very obvious.

Ian Yarwood
Solicitor - Perth, Western Australia

Posted by Ian Yarwood on July 8, 2015 18:22

Editor Comment:

Thanks for your hard work, Ian. We now have a very good working relationship with the Royal Thai Navy and still puzzle over why we were singled out to be sued. You might also recall that Khun Chutima's photograph was placed in the entrance guardhouse of the navy base as a banned person. The positioning of the photograph meant that many notables attending the base for NCPO events were able to see Khun Chutima was a ''banned person.'' My belief is that this prosecution and the scapegoating of Khun Chutima was a product of rumor, ego and paranoia. Unaccountably, the case has not been stopped. Khun Chutima tried to contact the Navy at the time of the July 17 article but got no response. As you know, our article said that if there had been any misdeeds, then they were performed by outlaws. As the case concerns just one Reuters paragraph, I'm not sure that anything else has relevance.

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with all respect to Australia and its generally very nice people, I would not like to be Australian citizen...

MFA of much smaller, much poorer country, with much lower international profile and regional standing often does much more in such apparently weird situation, involving HR...

Posted by Sue on July 8, 2015 20:14

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Hi Ed

The story and the Liberty Victoria media release have been picked up in the 9 July 2015 edition of The Australian newspaper.

Posted by Ian Yarwood on July 8, 2015 22:21

Editor Comment:

Great. Pleased to hear it.

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Sooner or later someone in authority in Thailand must see sense and realise that this is potentially a killer for the tourist industry.
That i am sorry to say Ed is your main hope because you will get no support from an Australian Government that has just made the reporting of child abuse, amongst asylum seekers in detention, illegal.

Posted by Arthur on July 9, 2015 01:01

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Hi Ed

As previously mentioned this media release was picked up by The Australian newspaper on 9 July 2015.

About an hour ago Julian Burnside AO QC sent out a further tweet with a link to the above Phuketwan story.

He currently has 75.8k twitter followers which is a very healthy number. Only a small handful of Australian politicians have more twitter followers.

Cheers

Posted by Ian Yarwood on July 10, 2015 10:41


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