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Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison: Judged guilty before their trial

Justice Ministry Finds Phuket Pair Guilty

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
PHUKET: Thailand's Justice Ministry has declared that two Phuket journalists are guilty of criminal defamation even though the trial judge has yet to hear any evidence in the case.

The surprising ruling comes in response to a request by the journalists, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, to have a special fund at the ministry cover the cost of their bail.

''We now have doubts that we can get a fair trial in Thailand if we have already been declared guilty by the Justice Ministry,'' Morison, who edits Phuketwan, said today.

''We were almost as shocked to hear what the Justice Ministry had to say as we were to hear that we were being sued by the Royal Thai Navy in the first place.''

In a case that has been condemned by rights groups, including the United Nations, the journalists are being sued for republishing a 41-word paragraph quoting directly from Reuters news agency. The paragraph formed part of a series of articles on the Rohingya boatpeople that won the Pulitzer for the news agency.

While the English-language version of the paragraph does not mention the Royal Thai Navy, a Thai-language translation used by Phuket police in the prosecution specifically mentions the Navy three times.

''We now have an indication directly from the Justice Ministry that we stand little chance of winning this case - even though we are not the authors of the paragraph and the 'evidence' has been completely distorted.''

The ruling against the application for bail was made in July but a copy of the judgement by the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, Justice Ministry, only reached the journalists this week.

Translated into English, the judgement says in part: ''The information . . . is false and untrue. The journalists must be correct and recheck their information before publishing the story to make sure there is no danger to others. The reputation of the Royal Thai Navy was damaged and made people look down on the Navy. On the evidence we have, we believe Morison and Khun Chutima did the wrong thing.''

The two journalists say they were aghast to read this judgement from the Justice Ministry when their trial in Phuket Provincial Court is not even scheduled to hear evidence until mid-July next year.

''I had expected to be treated fairly in Thailand and to have Thai justice find us innocent,'' Morison said. ''This is an indication there is no hope of that happening here.''

Khun Chutima, a reporter at Phuketwan, said: ''This letter is from the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, yet they clearly have no interest in protecting my rights and liberties. This is totally unfair.

''What makes the department able to judge us, before our trial? I am deeply disappointed to see the way my country's justice system fails to operate fairly.''

Earlier this year, the Phuket Damrungtam (Complaints) Office declined to ask investigating officers at Vichit Police Station why they had pursued the case against the journalists without first questioning the Navy officer who lodged the complaint.

Morison and Khun Chutima face lengthy jail terms as a maximum sentence if found guilty of criminal defamation and a Computer Crimes Act charge.

Morison is an Australian citizen. His passport has been seized, making him a prisoner in Thailand. He is unable to visit his ageing father, who turns 91 later this month.

Australian authorities and the country's Bangkok ambassador have declined to ask for his passport to be returned, even though it is the property of the Australian government.

The British government recently succeeded in having the passport of one of its citizens, Andy Hall, returned. He faces similar charges to the journalists, but brought by a pineapple processor.

Morison and Khun Chutima have vowed to continue reporting the saga of the Rohingya and other boatpeople who are being abused, raped and sometimes killed in Thailand's secret trafficking camps.

The journalists' coverage has won awards and international acclaim.

What Others Say


The Australian Government

Former Ambassador to Thailand, James Wise: ''Normally, we take up issues like yours with our host government only after the person affected asks us to do so (especially when the case already has a high profile and we can be confident that the host government is aware of it). We would not want to cut across your own plans for managing the way you want to respond to the allegations against you - because, ultimately, how you manage your affairs is your business, not ours.''

United Nations

''Criminal prosecution for defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of the press,'' said Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. ''International standards are clear that imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for defamation.''

Human Rights Watch

''The Thai navy's lawsuit is a reckless attempt to curtail journalists' reporting on alleged human trafficking by its officers,'' said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ''Unless the government withdraws the case, its impact will be felt far beyond those reporting on abuses against the Rohingya - and could have a choking effect on all investigative reporting in Thailand.''

Reporters Without Borders

"It is intolerable that journalists are being prosecuted for just doing their job by relaying information of general interest that had already been made public," Reporters Without Borders said. "Bringing charges under the controversial Computers Crimes Act in a defamation case is indicative of the critical state of freedom of information in Thailand and amounts to an attempt to gag the media. We support these journalists, who are facing a jail term, and we call for the immediate withdrawal of these proceedings."

Committee to Protect Journalists

''Rather than shooting the messenger, the Royal Thai Navy would be better suited launching an internal investigation into the serious allegations of abuse that have been raised,'' said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. ''This type of legal intimidation aims ultimately at discouraging media reporting on allegations of serious human rights abuses.''

Chris Lewa, director of the rights group the Arakan Project

''Thanks to the fair investigative reporting by the Phuketwan journalists, the involvement of various Thai agencies in the massive smuggling and trafficking operations of Rohingya refugees and their related miseries is no more a secret. Rights groups should unite to call on Thailand to quash these defamation charges.''

Phuketwan

''We wish the Royal Thai Navy would clear its reputation by explaining precisely what is happening to the Rohingya in the Andaman Sea and in Thailand,'' Phuketwan said in a statement released in response to the charges. ''By instead using a controversial law against us, the Navy is, we believe, acting out of character.''

Bangkok Post

The action makes the navy look like a bully, and gives the impression the admirals would like to intimidate the media. Instead of defending the navy's honor, the criminal defamation suit holds it to question. Instead of silencing the media about the story - concerning the navy's role in the mistreatment of Rohingya boatpeople - the lawsuit repeats it, to more people and at greater length.

CNN

Morison said: "The navy's action over one paragraph has created a perfect storm. If the navy proceeds with the case, the Rohingya issue is now tied up in their action against media under a controversial law."

TIME

In the meantime, calmer seas mean that even more Rohingya are expected to attempt the treacherous journey in the weeks ahead. Nothing could gladden the traffickers more.

Reuters

Barb Burg, Reuters' (former) global head of communications: ''Our story was fair and balanced and Reuters has not been accused of criminal libel.''

Bill Barnett (The Phuket Insider)

The issues which have drawn Phuketwan into this fray are profound and disturbing. There should be no need to wax over reality and respect needs to be given to those who stand up for the helpless who cannot help themselves.

Andrew Drummond (Investigative Journalist)

We should all support journalists who are doing a difficult job here
under laws which best suit a totalitarian state.

Excellence in Human Rights Reporting, Investigative Reporting awards

In 2010 the Phuketwan team shared the Society of Publishers in Asia Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting and a second Award for Excellence in Human Rights Reporting, both with the South China Morning Post newspaper. Judges said of the Excellence in Investigative Reporting award: ''An excellent series that uncovered serious government abuses and had a material impact in correcting them. Exclusivity. Strong reporting. Hard-hitting piece with international implications.''

Of the Excellence in Human Rights Reporting award, the judges said: ''Excellent investigative work that exposed serious human rights abuses of oppressed people. Intrepid reporting of a hidden subject. This is a high-caliber series buttressed by solid on-the-ground reporting and great pictures. All militaries are challenging subjects for investigative reporters and Thailand's is no exception. The team clearly went to great lengths to get sources, break news, and provide the details that prodded the government into action.''

Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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Why would you be surprised? When has there ever been real justice in Thailand? Justice is determined by your social status, surname and connections.

If you don't have them you need a well padded bank account and you'll need to pay people to 'lobby' on your behalf.

This requires various levels of grovelling and boot-licking and even then your not guaranteed justice.

Thailand is still a feudal country where patronage rules. Thais don't like their dirty laundry being aired, they prefer to stay in denial about the corrupt system. As long as people pay everything runs smoothly.

Posted by Arun Muruga on November 12, 2014 11:04

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All I would like to say, can not be printed here.

You already censored me for less harsh comments.

Posted by Georg The Viking on November 12, 2014 11:11

Editor Comment:

Moderated, Georg, not censored. Harsh comments don't help.

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An utter disgrace. I don't think Thailand realises the slippery slope it is on... and how fast the country is going down it.

Sadly, whatever the political persuasion (red, yellow, military) nothing significant will change for the people of the country. The powerful at the top of the chain only care about themselves. A new constitution is just a side show... nothing on-the-ground will change as the desire for change from the powerful is simply not there. None of the powerful have shown any willingness to make any sacrifice for the greater good. They play politics (playing is all they really do) and affect little change, spin PR around those minimal changes to make them sound important, con the people into thinking the changes are for the better, and then a few years down the track people realise nothing was actually improved... except the lifestyles and bank balances of the powerful. Sad.

Thailand needs a selfless hero... a true hero who will go all out to do what's needed for the country, and do that above everything else. Any volunteers?

Posted by Duncan on November 12, 2014 12:16

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Why is this NOT Amazing anymore?

Posted by phuketgreed on November 12, 2014 12:22

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No surprise there. What upsets me by far the most in and about Thailand is the blatant lack justice. If you are a poor Thai with no powerful friends, or worse, a foreigner, your chances of getting justice are astronomically small.

Posted by Herbert on November 12, 2014 12:23

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First, public agencies has no reputation to defend, so no defamation suits can be brought on behalf of public agencies, it is a legal maxim and it s so around the world. Even the Superior Court of Zimbabwe ruled on this matter in similar way.
It applies both in civil and criminal matters.
So I wonder what is a substance of the suit is?

There are could be some special legal norms to give extra protection to the "dignity of the army", and such norms yes, exists in many countries, incl.developed, but , first, it wasn't brought under similar section here, and then it applies usually to physical assaults and alike situations.

Then, in what capacity a member of public agency brought a suit? He surely can't represent the agency. Simply attracted an attention of police to the matter for a criminal prosecution to be done "in public interest"? Or he claims to be an (indirectly) injured party, as bad word about a public agency hurts him so much? There is no merit to bring such crminal case as , as said above, any public agency has no defendable reputation - only natural persons and private legal persons have, and no defamation suits whatever can be brought to defend any public body.
Ministry of agriculture can not sue if you say "they are doing bad job" ir ever in stronger words guv??ju a qualification for mental abilities of it's apparatus as a whole; then no ministry officer can bring defamation suit as he feels it hurts him.
Has Navy formally acknowledged a role of an injured party in PW suit?
It is the same public institution that has no reputation in legal sense to defend and can't bring a defamation cases in civil and criminal courts.
Public bodies can fight incidents of alleged defamation only by political means, e.g.by provding better disclosure to public and making its argument there.

It looks like to fundamentally wrong in this respect in PW case.

The same as above applies both in civil law and common law jurisdictions, it the same around the world.

Even in most vicious regimes defamation suits in regard of statements about state agencies are brought usually on behalf of individual ministers, officers etc.

So the present construction of the PW case as far as I see is wrong in this aspect, without even judging on other aspects,such case simply can't exist.

Posted by Sue on November 12, 2014 12:24

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I think it's fair to say when the western media views Thailand, most accept the country (generally speaking) is a lost cause, especially when it comes to human rights. I think the country has still a long way to go before it's alligned and in tune with the rest of the world.

It is however worrying that the Australian authorities haven't campaigned in the same fashion as the British, though no doubt they have their reasons. Evidently they are prepared to abandon thier own to fend for themselves, knowing they could be devoured by a system which is prone to corruption, where justice only prevails if you have the right influence or connections.

Posted by reader on November 12, 2014 13:05

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bullies. will send to all my thai friends on facebook and ask to share

Posted by Michael on November 12, 2014 13:07

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It seems to me that time is going anti-clockwise here.

Posted by phuketgreed on November 12, 2014 13:51

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'Nothing will significantly change for the people of Thailand' Duncan? Yesterday Mr Ed would have called you a 'Doomsayer' or a 'Dill' for comments like that. Buck up man, the future is rosy!!

Posted by Mister Ree on November 12, 2014 14:11

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ASEAN leaders in Myanmar: human rights is on the menu for discussion I believe, and Al Jazeera are showing daily programmes, not just about their own journalists imprisoned in Egypt, but the clampdown on journalists everywhere.

Posted by Pete on November 12, 2014 16:21

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Does this qualify Chutima Sidasathian for political asylum?

This is indeed worst news! Murders run free as Arun said "due to by social status, surname and connections " and people actually trying to help make this place better through information are not only unappreciated but persecuted.

Posted by Vfaye on November 12, 2014 16:41

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@Duncan ring the bat phone.

Posted by slickmelb on November 12, 2014 17:53

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(moderated)

Posted by James on November 12, 2014 19:21

Editor Comment:

Hahaha!

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hahaha again? How apt.

Posted by James on November 12, 2014 22:55

Editor Comment:

Well you are a joke. So is your dingbat gang.

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So what realistically is the prognosis for AM and for PW?

Posted by Jase on November 13, 2014 09:18

Editor Comment:

Thank you for asking. We really have no idea. Our fate is in the hands of others. We intend to keep covering the big issues, especially human trafficking, corruption and the safety of residents and tourists - and laughing at the dingbats and doomsayers.

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Editor as follow Up to Jasee remark. What are you suggestion; How to help you and Khun Chutima? What about the future from PhuketWan? For many of us you are the best/most reliable news-source related to Phuket.

Posted by phuketgreed on November 13, 2014 20:56

Editor Comment:

Thank you. For now, we are getting on with the job of reporting human trafficking, corruption and tourism safety, with the aim of improving Phuket and Thailand.


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