AN AUSTRALIAN journalist taking a stand against attempts to silence the media in Thailand has spent five hours in a small prison cell crowded with 90 prisoners, including a man who admitted killing his girlfriend.
''It wasn't hell but it wasn't far off,'' said Alan Morison, the editor of an independent news website on Phuket, who insists he is prepared to spend more time in jail to defend media freedoms in Thailand, where defamation laws are increasingly being used to silence criticism.
Mr Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian were freed from cells at a Phuket court late on Thursday after supporters raised 200,000 baht in bail on charges of criminal defamation and computers crimes, for which the pair could be jailed for up to seven years.
The charges relate to a story published in Mr Morison's Phuketwan website last year that included one paragraph from a Reuters news agency report on the violent persecution of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority.
Reuters, which on Monday won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage of the same story, has refused to defend Mr Morison and Ms Chutima, who was hired for several days by the company to work on its Rohingya coverage.
Shortly before the pair was taken to cells pending legal procedures on Thursday, a Reuters spokeswoman issued a statement saying ''we oppose the use of criminal laws to sanction the press - large or small, local or international - for publication on matters of serious public interest, like the Rohingya stories.''
Mr Morison, 66, a former senior Age editor and Ms Chutima, refused to raise the bail money themselves on principle and were remanded to appear in court again on May 26.
Mr Morison said while in the small hot cell he spent most of the time talking with a 52 year-old Norwegian man accused of killing his Thai girlfriend and hiding her body in a bin for three years.
He said the man admitted the killing to him.
''He said it was an accident . . . he had quite a story to tell,'' Mr Morison said. ''He believes he has avoided a murder conviction.''
The Royal Thai Navy's unprecedented charging of Mr Morison and Ms Chutima has been condemned by the United Nations and rights and journalist groups, both in Thailand and overseas.
Reuters, one of the world's largest news agencies, has not been charged over its award winning series but the company's spokeswoman said ''to our understanding'' a complaint against Reuters by the Thai navy is under review.
The spokeswoman said the Reuters story was ''fair, balanced and contextualised''.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the trial of the journalists was ''unjustified and a dark strain on Thailand's record for respecting media freedom.''
''The Thai navy should have debated these journalists publicly if they had concerns with the story rather than insisting on their prosecution under the draconian Computer Crimes Act and criminal statutes,'' he said.
''It is now time for Thailand's leaders to step in and order prosecutors to drop this case, and end this blatant violation of media freedoms once and for all.''
Benjamin Ismail, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, said taking Phuketwan to court was absurd.
''If they want to dispute the Reuters special report, which has just won a Pulitzer prize, they can publicly give their version of events and demand right of reply,'' he said.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand said in a statement that while Reuters, a large media organisation, was being feted for its reporting, ''two poorly-funded local journalists are being prosecuted for their reporting of the same issue, including material from Reuters''.
''These two journalists have done more than most to report accurately from Thailand the plight of the Rohingya,'' the club said in a statement.
''The professional membership of the FCCT shares the view of the UN Human Rights Commissioner and human rights groups 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.
''The legal action also seriously damages the image of Thailand and claims it may make in supporting freedom of speech and fair comment.''
THE professional membership of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) congratulates Thomson Reuters journalists Jason Szep and Andrew R. C. Marshall on a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on the plight of Rohingya people.
The award recognizes a series of articles that are in the best tradition of journalism, and which expose the systematic abuse of Rohingyas in Myanmar and in Thailand.
At the same time, the professional membership of the FCCT notes that while a large media organisation is being feted for its reporting, two poorly-funded local journalists are facing prosecution for their reporting of the same issue - and indeed for publishing material from a Thomson Reuters report.
The Royal Thai Navy is proceeding with criminal prosecution of two Phuket-based journalists, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, who run Phuketwan, a newsletter.
These two journalists have done more than most to report accurately from Thailand the plight of Rohingyas. They have also rendered invaluable assistance to journalists at Thomson Reuters and other local and foreign media organisations attempting to report this humanitarian crisis.
Alan Morison from Australia and Chutima Sidasathian from Thailand are facing charges for criminal defamation and violating the Computer Crimes Act after republishing parts of the Thomson Reuters reports on trafficking of Rohingyas in Thailand.
Under existing Thai law, these are criminal charges that could result in prison terms.
The professional membership of the FCCT shares the view of the UN Human Rights Commissioner and human rights groups that such a prosecution serves only to stifle media freedom on an issue of profound importance to the rights of a persecuted people.
The legal action also seriously damages the image of Thailand and claims it may make to supporting freedom of speech and fair comment.
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.