Navy must end its attack on reporters
THE CONTRAST could hardly have been starker: On Monday, a major news agency won the Pulitzer Prize for their work exposing Thailand's involvement in the trafficking of Myanmar's oppressed Rohingya minority through what it called a ''tropical gulag''.
On Thursday, two journalists running a small, independent website in Phuket were formally indicted for criminally defaming the Royal Thai Navy by quoting part of the award-winning report.
In the Reuters office, they sipped champagne and celebrated. But Phuketwan editor Alan Morison and journalist Chutima Sidasathian, who had played a substantial role in the Reuters investigation, had to worry about the threat of seven years in jail and whether they would be granted bail.
The reaction was as swift as it was targeted, with media advocates lining up to condemn the navy for pursuing the pair through the courts.
In the months since legal action was first mooted, Morison and Chutima have won support from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Reporters Without Borders and any number of NGOs and media outlets.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand used its congratulations for Reuters to highlight the plight of the Phuketwan journalists.
''The professional membership of the FCCT shares the view that such a prosecution serves only to stifle media freedom on an issue of profound importance to the rights of a persecuted people,'' the club said in a statement.
The case also comes at a precarious time for media freedom not only in Thailand but more broadly across the region.
In Myanmar (Burma), Democratic Voice of Burma journalist Zaw Pe has been imprisoned for a year on charges of trespassing and ''disturbing a civil servant on duty''. The case, which prompted several outlets to run black front pages in protest, is but one of many examples in a country where journalists can be jailed for doing their jobs.
In Cambodia, a controversial cyber crimes bill has been proposed that critics say strikes at the heart of freedom of expression.
Its vague provisions, including prohibiting content ''damaging to the moral and cultural values of society'' are open to broad interpretation and could be open to abuse.
Free speech advocates claim other sections have been deliberately drafted to undermine political cartoonists who criticise Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party.
In the Phuketwan case, it is hard to escape the conclusion that those pursuing it are looking increasingly misguided and vindictive, especially in the face of international recognition for the Reuters report.
The navy has been its own worst enemy in this case. Attempting to silence media outlets with defamation lawsuits will never win any public relations battles - the old saying about never arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel holds true in the modern era of digital media when megabytes come cheaper.
Morison and Chutima have more than Phuketwan at their disposal to fight back with, they have supporters across the industry.
The navy and prosecutors have also been criticised for picking a small target without pursuing larger organisations that published the report, or Reuters itself.
The use of the Computer Crimes Act, controversial in itself, has also heightened concerns the case is more about shutting down debate than correcting any errors.
There has been little explanation as to why that law has been invoked in this case, save for the fact the article was published via an online media outlet.
While those making the defamation accusations have been accused of overkill, and Morison and Chutima have a difficult fight on their hands, sadly the lawsuit has been effective in at least one way.
Discussion about the plight of the Rohingya as they pass through southern Thailand, and any role Thai authorities have in the process, has fallen by the wayside.
The navy should stop its prosecution of Morison and Chutima. Instead, it should turn its attention to dealing with the issues at the heart of the story they have been following for seven years: The smuggling and trafficking of a disadvantaged minority group.
It should spend more time protecting those people than its own reputation, and work to destroy the smuggling rings and stopping any Thai officials who are profiting from the exploitation of the vulnerable.
If the story is untrue, there are better ways to refute it. If it is accurate and the truth hurts: Change it.
Morison and Chutima deserve all the attention and support they can muster as they are willing to risk imprisonment for the sake of free speech. The Rohingya also needed attention and support as they seek freedom.
Phuketwan is marking the 30-day countdown to the 30th anniversary of the World Media Freedom Day on May 3 with news outlets around the world.