An Australian website editor on trial for defamation in Phuket, Thailand, said he felt “relieved” after the first day’s proceedings, in which the prosecution rested its case.
Speaking to DVB after leaving court, 67-year-old Alan Morison said the case presented by lawyers representing the Thai navy was “pretty basic” and contained “no surprises”.
Morison is the editor of Phuketwan, a small website covering news on the popular tourist island of Phuket in southern Thailand. He and his colleague, Chutima Sidasathian, are accused of defamation over excerpts from a Reuters report they republished two years ago, implicating members of the Thai navy in human trafficking.
If found guilty, Morison and Chutima could face up to two years in jail for criminal defamation and five years for breaching the Computer Crimes Act by posting the story online, as well as additional fines of up to 300,000 baht (US$8,800).
One of the issues that may have brought relief to the journalists at trial on Tuesday may have been the inability of any prosecution witnesses to identify who exactly had published the Phuketwan report in 2013.
“Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act requires identifying an offender who ‘inserted’ information onto a computer to be found guilty of the offences,” tweeted Andy Hall, a British activist with the Thai-based Migrant Worker Rights Network, who was present in court on Tuesday. “No witness knew who inserted info into [the] computer.”
The charges stem from a Phuketwan report in 2013 that referred to an investigation by the Reuters news agency which had alleged that members of the Thai navy were routinely accepting bribes from traffickers to allow them to smuggle Rohingya Muslims through Thai waters.
Tens of thousands of the stateless Rohingya, one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, have fled Buddhist-majority Burma’s western Arakan State since 2012, when deadly unrest erupted.
In recent years, they have increasingly been joined on dangerous sea crossings by economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, mainly headed for Malaysia.
Reuters has not been charged over reporting the allegations. In fact, the London-based news group won a Pulitzer Prize last year in relation to the trafficking exposé.
Morison bemoaned the apparent double standard, saying, “The initial pursuits against Reuters were dropped. We quote exactly the same paragraph. [The Thai navy is pursuing us] for only one paragraph reproduced word-to-word from Reuters.”
The paragraph in question includes an excerpt from the original Reuters report that quoted a human trafficker as saying that ”Thai naval forces” usually earn about 2,000 baht per Rohingya.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Human Rights Office urged the Royal Thai Navy to drop the charges against the two journalists.
In a statement, the UN agency said it was “highly concerned” with the trial of the Australian editor and Thai reporter.
“Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest,” it said in a statement.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, was critical of the Thai government’s “big brother” tactics against a small-time website.
“The fact that these two journalists are even on trial is a scathing indictment of the Thai government’s unwillingness to respect media freedom and clear indicator of how far and fast the environment for free expression has deteriorated under military rule,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. ‘[Thai] Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth should have ordered the navy to stand down and withdraw the charges — but instead he effectively endorsed their effort to gag media critics, and in doing so, administered another body blow to what little remains of Thailand’s international rights reputation.
“The real message of this trial to Thailand’s journalists is report at your own risk because big brother in Bangkok is watching – but fortunately, when they went after Alan and Chutima, the navy and the ruling military junta came up against two courageous journalists who are not afraid to fight for their principles. They deserve the international community’s unstinting support. They certainly have Human Rights Watch’s support.”
Meanwhile, Morison said he fears that – win or lose the case – he may never be able to work again on the Phuketwan site, where he and Chutima have on several occasions written exclusive reports on Rohingya boatpeople washing up on the western shores of Thailand.
“We’ve closed until at least the end of the trial and we are not sure whether Phuketwan will reopen,” he told DVB. “The problem is that the 18 months since we were charged have drained our energy and my finances. The site was set up with the intention of improving Phuket and Thailand, using my own life savings. As a journalist for almost 50 years, I wanted to give something back.
“The Royal Thai Navy is on another wavelength and appears to not be concerned about the damage this foolish prosecution will do to Thailand. Unfortunately the navy, which is a good organisation and does some wonderful things, is allowing one or two officers to go ahead with a misguided prosecution that can only damage democracy. We hope the justice system is quick to realise the rights and wrongs of this case.”
The trial at Phuket Provincial Court continues on Wednesday with Morison and Chutima expected to give testimonies.
Read DVB’s 2014 interview with the Phuketwan journalists HERE