The new investigating officer, Lieutenant Narong Meungdong, from Phuket's Vichit Police Station, said this week that he and the new prosecutor on the case, Wuttisak Dawan, now intended to ask the Royal Thai Navy to provide more details about the reasons why the Reuters case should proceed.
No such details were sought in the case against Phuketwan, a small Phuket-based online news outlet, where two journalists are already being prosecuted over word-for-word republication of the same contentious Reuters paragraph.
The Army coup in Thailand has severely strained the normal ''democratic'' relationship between the military and the media. However, the only use of Thailand's repressive defamation and Internet laws so far by the military against the media remains the pre-coup Royal Thai Navy prosecution of Phuketwan.
Journalists Chutima Sidasathian and Australian Alan Morison face seven and 14 years in jail respectively for including a 41-word paragraph from a Reuters special report on the Rohingya boatpeople in a Phuketwan article. Reuters subsequently won a Pulitzer prize for its series of reports on the boatpeople, a series that included the contentious paragraph.
Morison and Khun Chutima, both also recipients of international awards for their investigative journalism, have been covering the Rohingya issue consistently since 2008. They believe the sole purpose of the Navy's court action is to shut down Phuketwan, which has often reported the ingrained abuse of Rohingya in Burma and Thailand by traffickers and officials.
The case against the two Phuket journalists and Phuketwan's parent company, Big Island Media, has already been accepted by the Phuket prosecutor's office and a trial is underway. But the case against Reuters, a huge international media business, continues to move sideways in fits and starts.
Police at Vichit Police Station last month told Phuketwan and the international news agency Agence France Press that paperwork had been posted to Reuters in pursuit of the case. But that appears now to not be correct.
It was on July 17 last year that Navy Captain Panlob Komtonlok complained to officers at Vichit Police Station. Earlier that day, first Reuters then Phuketwan published the same allegedly defamatory 41-word paragraph.
The trial of the Phuketwan pair began in April. But 11 months on from the initial complaint, no paperwork has been served on Reuters or the two agency journalists who wrote the paragraph, Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings.
The special report that contained the controversial paragraph written by the pair was placed at the top of the list in the links on the Pulitzer site to all of the articles in the award-winning Reuters series.
Captain Panlob's complaint was approved by the Assistant Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Navy, Admiral Polawat Sirodom, on October 4 last year. Papers were served on the Phuketwan journalists in December and their trial continues in March next year.
Captain Panlob is the only Navy witness in documents lodged with the Phuket Provincial Court in that case.
Lieutenant Narong said this week that he sent a letter to Captain Panlob on Wednesday, asking for reasons why the Royal Thai Navy saw itself as a victim of the Reuters special report.
''This could take a while,'' Lieutenant Narong said. ''It depends whether the Royal Thai Navy can find more witnesses to justify motivation.''
Morison, the editor of Phuketwan, said today: ''In democracies, the usual course of action would be for the captain or his superior officer to contact the media outlets immediately if they felt aggrieved. We have no problem with the Royal Thai Navy, but the service appears to have listened to bad advice in pursuing this action through the courts.
''It would have been more sensible to make a telephone call to complain directly or perhaps even to hold a media conference, to give the Navy perspective.
''Thailand's coup commander, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has shown the right approach by continuing to explain his actions in public. How did the Royal Thai Navy get it so wrong?
''Because of the Navy's secret and silent approach to dealing with the Rohingya boatpeople and its critics, foreign correspondents and local journalists jumped to the conclusion that repressive legal action would follow under the coup when the general took charge on May 22.
''The good news is that so far, Phuketwan remains the only media outlet to be persecuted in this undemocratic manner.''
Navy Uses Computer Crimes Act to Sue:
The Nation Cartoon in Full:
Phuket Reporters Prepared for Prison:
''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.''
''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.''
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.
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
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.
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.''