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Last week, Alan Morison, the editor of Phuketwan news website, and his colleague, Chutima Sidasathian, were pronounced ‘not guilty’ of charges of defamation and computer crimes by a judge in southern Thailand. Freedom has been a long time coming – a two-year legal process since their report about the trafficking of Rohingya boatpeople from Burma sparked the ire of some Thai naval officers.
Morison speaks exclusively to DVB about the pressures of the trial, the Rohingya issue, and the road ahead.
Q: Clearly your website, Phuketwan, is designed for locals and tourists. What were the defining moments that swayed you towards the Rohingya issue?
A: In 2008 there was an illegal load of Burmese bound for Phuket when air circulation in the cooled fishing container truck failed, leaving 54 of the 104 people inside to suffocate. We headed north to the border port of Ranong and, soon after, learned from the then vice-admiral in charge of Royal Thai Navy 3 on the Andaman coast about the Rohingya. The navy would not let us join them on a warship patrol but instead sent us some photographs of boatpeople being detained on beaches that made us even more curious. In December 2008, we learned through contacts that the military had become involved in processing boatpeople and in January we went to Ranong again and found the island where boatpeople were being held in secret before the inhumane ‘pushbacks’. Hundreds of men and boys were loaded onto barges, towed out to international waters and cut adrift, without means of propulsion. We teamed up with the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong to break the story and the then government of Thailand stopped the inhumane policy when survivors who washed up in the Nicobar Islands and Indonesia revealed hundreds had died, thanks to the Thai policy.
Q: As a journalist in Australia, did you seek out causes? Have you always been passionate about supporting the less privileged?
A: Like a lot of journalists in Australia I led a fairly comfortable existence but when I was given the opportunity to edit, I certainly supported some good causes. One of Australia’s most famous cartoonists, Michael Leunig, who was at the time a colleague, once called me the ‘Crumpled Crusader’. I took it as a compliment. I wasn’t a stylish dresser.
Q: Chutima and you had previously detailed reports and published pictures of Rohingya boatpeople washing up on the shores of Phuket and Phang-nga. Did you feel any pressure at that time from locals or Thai authorities to avoid the issue? At what point (either before or after you republished excerpts from the original Reuters report) did you realise you were headed into a storm?
A: We had no indication that one or two officers in the Royal Thai Navy had taken exception to our coverage of the boatpeople until a policeman knocked on our door in December 2013, a long time after we published the Reuters paragraph word for word among other excepts in a news report in July that year. Over the years we have often reported what other organisations have been reporting in their coverage of the boatpeople. Until the knock on our door, the relationship with officials of all kinds had always been thoroughly professional. The navy officers could have simply made a telephone call to Reuters or to us. That would have been the normal way to settle such a problem in most democracies, where the media and the military work side by side and understand and respect each other’s roles. It’s worth noting that this case began before the military takeover in Thailand and was unconnected with the present government.
Q: And how about the trial itself? Did Chutima and you feel you were fairly treated? What did you feel were the pivotal moments or testimonies that led to your acquittal?
A: We were delighted with the almost-universal support that came from stakeholders of all kinds, and the legal team led by SR Law did a wonderful job in assembling a team of expert witnesses who demolished the navy’s case. Basically, the Computer Crimes Act was designed to be used against hackers and data base thieves, not journalists, and the translation of ‘Thai naval forces’ as ‘Royal Thai Navy’ was clearly wrong. By bringing the case against Phuketwan, the navy did its reputation far more damage because the navy wasn’t even mentioned in the original paragraph. The expert witnesses pointed out all the flaws in the navy’s case. The judge was clearly listening.
Q: If you had been a Thai national rather than a foreigner, do you feel the entire case would have evolved the same way?
A: We were grateful that the article carried both our bylines so there was always anxiety from within Thailand and outside Thailand as well. I think there would have been support from NGOs if we’d both been Thais. It’s hard to say what was in the minds of the misguided officers who brought the charges. But the navy officers now on Phuket resumed a normal professional relationship with us months ago, so it’s business as usual. We were free to defend ourselves the whole time, too, on Phuketwan, which says a lot about freedoms in Thailand.
Q: Please describe what must have been a rollercoaster of emotions from the time of your arrest, through the trial, to the moment you walked out the door a free man.
A: The pressure came from officials who wanted us to apologise so the charges would ‘’go away’, and family and friends who thought an apology was the sensible thing to do to save ourselves. I was allowed to return to Australia to see my dying father in February, and friends and family thought I must be a bit crazy to go back to Thailand. There was never any sense that I was going to leave my colleague to fight the battle alone. She had her passport and could also have fled. But we are both very fond of Thailand and wanted to see the case through because it was in Thailand’s best interests. Fortunately, the Thai justice system saw things the same way. We were so pleased to be able to make a statement on behalf of media freedom, and the stateless Rohingya. These are big, important causes. We are just bit players.
Q: And what now for Phuketwan? And for Chutima and yourself?
A: We are still assessing what will happen next. When the police knocked, we were talking about moving on and selling Phuketwan. Advertisers have deserted us since, so the past two years has eaten up between $60,000 and $100,000 of my life savings, even though the wonderful Media Legal Defence Initiative is covering almost all the legal costs. We certainly want to make sure the boatpeople issue is properly covered in coming years, but our inclination is still to move on. If others take up reporting on the issue, great.
Read more about this case HERE