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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 29 April.
“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 report 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 22 April 2014.