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.
The lawsuit will harm the image of the sea-going arm of the military.
The tale of the unwise lawsuit began earlier this year when Reuters news agency ran a lengthy feature on the Rohingya.
The story had both old and new details on the treatment which the desperate Rohingya receive in Thailand, both at sea and on land. It contained details of purported human trafficking and general inhumane treatment of the Muslim boat people.
Two journalists from the Phuketwan news website, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, commented on the Reuters feature. A few days later they received a legal order to appear at Vichit police station, south of Phuket City.
A navy captain, acting on behalf of the service, filed the defamation charges.
The charges claimed that since the report in question was carried online by Phuketwan, the alleged defamation should be prosecuted under the Computer Crimes Act (CCA).
That could be taken as yet another attempt at intimidation. The CCA, passed during the time of the last military junta in 2007, carries substantially heavier prison and punitive penalties for exactly the same offence under the Criminal Code.
The navy is giving the impression that not only will it try to suppress alleged defamation, it will try to crush, humiliate and put the defendants away for many years.
This is not the image that a professional military service should project. Not only is the navy approaching the alleged offence in entirely the wrong manner. It is also showing signs that it is a bully. A senior officer or, if necessary, the government should step in quickly and save the navy from its own actions.
The defendants charged by the navy did not make the initial allegations or write the story that the Royal Thai Navy abuses Rohingya boat people. That was done by an international news agency. By pursuing Mr Morison and Ms Chutima, the navy seems to be acting on false information. Either that, or it feels confident chasing local media, but is somehow not up to the task of taking on international, Bangkok-based media.
The lengthy Reuters feature on the mistreatment of Rohingya by the navy and other agencies should certainly be taken seriously. But once again, a heavy-handed government agency chose to try and punish the speaker - to "shoot the messenger" - instead of taking the correct, acceptable course. The only acceptable response to free speech is more free speech.
This lawsuit should not go forward. If the navy feels the article defamed the military service, it should take the obvious step of countering it. It has a full range of methods to show the story was wrong - if it was - through media interviews or operational cruises. Someone should step in quickly to save the navy from itself in this unacceptable action, even if it's the minister of defence. Otherwise, the image of the seagoing military branch will suffer immense damage.
Bangkok Post December 25, 2013