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The Thai Navy greets the Burmese Navy in February 2013. A group of Rohingya who landed in Thailand on Christmas Day claimed the Burmese Navy handed them to traffickers, who later killed 12 boatpeople

Navy Takes Aim at Phuketwan

Thursday, April 24, 2014
BANGKOK: The two Phuketwan journalists facing a Royal Thai Navy defamation lawsuit over mistreatment of Rohingya suggested the suit be dropped to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on May 3, but the navy rejected that and said it was preparing a second lawsuit against the Reuters news agency.

''This involves national security,'' said 3rd Navy Fleet Commander, Vice Adm Tharathorn Khajitsuwan. ''We cannot allow anyone to go around freely making false accusations.''

In a telephone conversation with the Bangkok Post, he said the service plans to double down, literally. ''Not only do we refuse to withdraw any lawsuit, but we are processing another suit against Reuters as well,'' he said.

The court should have the final say on the matter, he said in a separate, written response to questions submitted by the Bangkok Post.

Alan Morison, the Australian editor of Phuketwan, said from Phuket that the navy should drop the suit to mark the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, a United Nations-sponsored event, on May 3.

His colleague at Phuketwan, Chutima Sidasathian, made a similar suggestion at the University of Sydney in Australia on Tuesday. Ms Chutima is also due to speak about the lawsuit and Rohingya plight at the Melbourne Press Club on April 29.

''Thailand was adrift from the truth, with the Royal Thai Navy seeking to punish two Phuketwan journalists using the much-criticised Computer Crimes Act and criminal defamation,'' said Ms Chutima in an email to Bangkok Post before delivering her speech on Rohingya migrants at the International Conference on Thai Studies in Sydney.

Initially, she thought she might not be able to travel to Australia as planned as it took her and her editor Morison five hours at a Phuket remand cell before bail could be finalised on 17 April.

That was when the Phuket prosecutor officially filed a suit against them following the 3rd Naval Fleet complaint in October of last year.

The two Phuket-based online journalists face up to seven years in jail for republishing a paragraph from a Reuters special report series on the mistreatment of Rohingya migrants. The series last week won journalism's highest award, a Pulitzer Prize.

The paragraph in question mentioned suspicion that Thai naval forces and other security forces were involved in human trafficking and smuggling of Rohingya who fled Burma.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Mr Morison said he was most disappointed that Reuters has not spoken up to defend its paragraph and Phuketwan.

Ms Chutima's speech in Australia echoed that disappointment. ''I call upon my government to celebrate the occasion [World Press Freedom Day], to drop this case, and to prove to everyone that Thailand still believes in truth and freedom.''

A PhD at Nakhon Si Thammarat-based Walailak University, Ms Chutima shared the 2010 Society of Publishers in Asia Excellence in Investigative Reporting and Excellence in Human Rights Reporting awards.

In 2009 she shared the Scoop of the Year at the Hong Kong News Awards, and the general news prize at the Human Rights Press Awards in Hong Kong.

Mr Morison said he was glad to see Phuket media show up to lend solidarity to him and Ms Chutima at court last week, and asked to know more about the Rohingya and the court case.

He was ''disappointed'' at total silence from the Thai Journalist Association.

Other regional and international press human rights bodies and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have already issued pleas for the lawsuit to be withdrawn.

The silence of both Reuters and the national press body reflected the state of mind of the media operations in Thailand, said Mr Morison.

On Friday, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) will summon representatives of the Royal Thai Navy and Phuket police to clarify the Phuketwan lawsuit, because the two journalists have claimed violations of media freedom.

The Phuket Court has set 26 May for the initial session to check the list of witnesses and set hearing dates.

This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on April 22, 2014. Republished with permission.

What Others Say

United Nations
''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.''

Bangkok Post
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.''


Comments have been disabled for this article.


I can not believe that in 2014 the Thai navy have not got better to do than take two journalists to court, the two journalists were only going about doing there job.
To the Thai navy, what are you going to gain by taking them to court?

Posted by Robert London on April 30, 2014 03:03

Editor Comment:

I guess the court may order us to remove the alleged defamatory paragraph when a telephone call could have achieved a similar outcome 10 months ago.


Robert, if an article I posted yesterday was published, you would see that the RTN has made some major plunders, some of which even the Thai press have highlighted, so I guess they need a face saving win, at all costs.

Ed, I guess we should all get a copy of that alleged defamatory article before it is edited.

Posted by Laurie Howells on April 30, 2014 10:30

Editor Comment:

What you post are comments, Laurie. I think you mean ''blunders.''


Ed.. be a good editor and change "plunders" to "blunders"...thanks

Posted by Laurie Howells on April 30, 2014 12:56

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