cnn.com Thai navy sues Phuketwan journalists over Rohingya trafficking report
BANGKOK: Alan Morison never expected to be on the wrong side of the Royal Thai Navy. Having worked as a journalist in Phuket for nearly a decade, his professional rapport with them was always amicable.
''We've always presumed that we have a good relationship with the Royal Thai Navy because we're both based in Phuket. And we hold them in high regard here with the things they do, from rescue to protection, '' Morison, the editor of the Phuketwan online news outlet, said.
So for Morison, it was a '''total mystery''' when a policeman called him last Monday to say he was coming to serve him with papers for a criminal defamation suit.
The policeman didn't say then who filed the suit, but on Tuesday Morison and his fellow Phuketwan journalist Chutima Sidasathian are due to reappear at the station for further investigation.
'''We started drawing up a list of 100 names who might be behind the action when we got the call, and the Royal Thai Navy wasn't anywhere on the list,'' he said.
The papers were served shortly after the call. When Morison found out the navy was not only filing for defamation - but also invoking the Computer Crimes Act, alleging a breach of the law - for an article he co-reported with Chutima, ''it was a puzzle to us.''
The navy responded to an article published online on July 17 by Morison and Chutima that focused on a Reuters investigation published the same month. It alleged a connection between the navy and the smuggling of Rohingya people. And the catalyst that set the navy off? Forty-two words quoted by Phuketwan from the Reuters piece.
'''The navy's action over one paragraph has become a perfect storm because it involves the very tragic treatment of the Rohingya and the application of a very harsh and onerous law on a small news organisation,''' Morison said.
''In taking action the way it has, the navy has brought its own reputation under closer examination than it would ever have wanted.'''
Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed the navy filed the case with the Vichit police station in Phuket, which issued a summons for Morison and Chutima.
Last Wednesday, Morison and Chutima reported to the police. They denied all charges and were fingerprinted.
A Reuters spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Friday: '''Our story was fair and balanced and Reuters has not been accused of criminal libel'''.
Morison and Chutima have talked on a few recent occasions with the journalists from Reuters. '''But we haven't talked to them for a couple of days,''' Morison said.
He said that based on the short statement released by Reuters: '''I guess that's how much they want to be involved at this stage''.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director for HRW's Asia Division, said the fact that reporters are not based in Bangkok would require a different legal procedure if the Royal Thai Navy was to bring a suit against Reuters.
The criminal complaint would have to be filed at Vichit police station and the station would then have to direct the case file to the Department of Justice in Bangkok to take further action.
''It will be interesting to see whether the navy has the political guts to go after the big boys,'' Mr Robertson said. ''It's very easy to pick on a small website in Phuket.''
Morison, mystified as to why Phuketwan has become a recent target of the navy, is outraged at the situation.
'''If the navy would spend as much time talking to the authorities [in Myanmar] about the mistreatment of the Rohingya as they spend reading Phuketwan, the world might be a better place,'' he said.
He does not understand why the suit has come months after the publication of the article - nor why the navy's focus is on alleged repeat defamation from a piece published by Reuters.
'''We think this is more about the navy's lack of understanding of the world outside the navy than anything else,''' Morison said.
'''We think the navy unfortunately does not have a real understanding of the way the media works and their influence on the human rights of the Rohingya people.
''What we're led to understand is that the navy no longer has a role to play in the shipments of Rohingya boatloads in the camps down in southern Thailand.'''
If convicted on the criminal defamation charges, Morison and Chutima could be imprisoned for up to two years. Under the Computer Crime Act, they face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 baht, according to Human Rights Watch.
But Morison and Chutima are ''past the stage of being scared''.
Morison said: ''Chutima once went up a hillside to discover a camp for Rohingya in southern Thailand knowing there were armed guards around the perimeter of the camp, and that was scary.
''The thought of going to jail doesn't worry us as much as not knowing why the military has sued a small media organisation over one paragraph that comes from another source.''
Last Thursday evening, Chutima received a phone call from a go-between with contacts in the navy. That person asked whether Chutima and Morison would be prepared to accept a situation in which the navy would drop charges in lieu of a public apology.
''We told him that of course we would ... and we're awaiting news back from that go-between.'' Morison said. Now, for Morison and Chutima, the situation is a frustrating waiting game.
''At this stage we're awaiting some sort of formal word back from the navy,'' Morison said. ''We'll decide when we get that how to react.
''We're not likely to pursue action of any kind in the court because we don't think that's the right thing to do. Our advice to the navy, had they made a telephone call to us, would have been to settle any dispute by any other means,'' he said.
Reprinted from Bangkok Post December 22, 2013.