PHUKET: Two Phuket journalists facing criminal defamation and Computer Crimes Act charges brought by the Royal Thai Navy are to face court on April 17, the Phuket Prosecutor said today.
Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian were to appear at the Prosecutor's Office on that date to hear his decision on whether the case will proceed.
However, today's telephone call advised that the case is proceeding and that Morison and Khun Chutima should appear at Phuket Provincial Court on that date.
The pair of international award-winning journalists have been accused of criminal defamation and an offence under the Computer Crimes Act by Captain Panlob Komtonlok, acting on behalf of the Royal Thai Navy.
The action 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 journalists in December.
The case centres on a single paragraph from Reuters news agency, republished on Phuketwan in excepts from a Reuters special report on the Rohingya boatpeople on July 17.
The paragraph and the headline on the article do not mention the Royal Thai Navy or Captain Panlob. Reuters and several Thai-language news outlets have not been charged, even though they published the same paragraph in English or Thai translations of it.
The Thai translation of the paragraph central to the prosecution inserts the Thai words for ''Royal Thai Navy'' twice, even though the navy is not mentioned in the English version.
Just last week Thailand's Human Rights Commission interviewed the Phuket journalists and said it would investigate the actions of the Navy and police.
The maximum penalties under the charges total seven years in jail and/or a 100,000 baht fine.
Many observers see the landmark suit as an attempt by the Royal Thai Navy to silence Phuketwan. Morison and Khun Chutima have won international awards and praise for their coverage of the stateless Rohingya boatpeople.
Thailand's criminal defamation laws and the Computer Crimes Act are regarded as exceedingly repressive. There is no equivalent in any mature democracy.
Both journalists have a high regard for the Royal Thai Navy, which rescues stranded tourists around the Andaman region, protects endangered turtles and rebuilt villages after the 2004 tsunami.
''If the military has a problem with the media, usually a phone call will be made to the journalists to complain or perhaps a commander will call a press conference to respond to claims,'' Morison said.
''That's the way it works in democracies. We think the Royal Thai Navy has listened to bad advice from one or two people on this issue.''
Morison has said that in defence of media freedom in Thailand, he will not apply for bail if a court seeks bail and will go directly to jail instead. Publication of Phuketwan will cease if he is jailed.
By coincidence, the case on Phuket is proceeding as journalists in Australia and around the globe mark a 30-day countdown to the 30th anniversary of World Media Freedom Day on May 3.
''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 law."
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' 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, 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.''
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