After the Thai navy sued a news website in Thailand over the publication of a story claiming it helped traffick Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya refugees, its editor says he is prepared to go to jail to defend what he called an attack on media freedom.
A Royal Thai Navy (RTN) official accused Alan Morison, the Australian editor of the Phuket-based English-language website Phuketwan and his Thai reporter colleague Chutima Sidasathian of criminal defamation. The lawsuit also alleged the two violated the country's Computer Crimes Act, which bars the circulation of information on the Internet deemed to threaten national security or spread panic.
"Chutima and I have been charged under two of the most severe and contentious laws in the country and we face seven years in jail. We run a small website. The navy is using a sledgehammer to crack a little walnut," said Morison, 66.
"It's an outrageous attempt to muzzle the media."
Several international media and human rights groups have criticised the navy's action, and urged Thai authorities to drop the lawsuit.
We are puzzled as to why the Phuketwan is being singled out when scores of outlets around the world had the opportunity to republish the Reuters report.
But the commander of the naval authority said it would not withdraw it. "False information" about the RTN published by Phuketwan damaged the image of Thailand and caused the navy to take legal action, Vice Admiral Tharathorn Khajitsuwan told Thailand's Channel 3 TV.
"We shall not withdraw the case. They should face the trial. Let the court find out the truth and take the decision in the case."
Morison, who has lived in Thailand for 11 years, said at the heart of the issue is the plight of the Rohingya, thousands of whom flee ethnic violence in neighbouring Myanmar each year.
"The problem for us is that we are willing to go to jail to stand against a bad law and to uphold the principle that the media should be free and unfettered, particularly when reporting the activities of the military," said Morison, who also freelances for international media including The Sydney Morning Herald, South China Morning Post and CNN.
"But if we go to jail, our coverage of the Rohingya boat people and their treatment by traffickers in Thailand will cease for as long as we are in prison. That's the huge dilemma for us."
Thai navy officials refused an interview request for this story.
Reporting on Rohingya
For many years, Myanmar's stateless Muslim Rohingya minority have fled via Thailand to the mostly Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia.
In recent years, Thailand's official policy has been to assist the Rohingya boats by providing food and water and "help" them move towards Malaysian waters. But allegations have surfaced about rights abuses of the Rohingya refugees and a nexus between Thai security agencies and human trafficking gangs.
Since Phuketwan was founded in 2008, it has been known for its leading role in reporting on issues related to Rohingya refugees. The website has won international awards for upholding human rights and for its coverage of the plight of the boat people.
|Two journalists face jail terms following the publication of a report that allegedly defamed the Royal Thai Navy [Phuketwan]
A story published on the website on July 17 headlined "Thai Military Profiting from Trade in Boatpeople, Says Special Report" cited an investigation by Reuters news agency claiming members of the navy worked "systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya". This caused the navy to file a suit against Phuketwan on December 16.
Morison said the legal action against him and his colleague was based on an allegation that navy officials earned "about 2,000 baht [$61] per Rohingya for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye", which was taken from a Reuters article that Phuketwan simply republished.
"We have been sued over the paragraph, but it was repeated straight from the Reuters special report. We are puzzled as to why the Phuketwan is being singled out when scores of outlets around the world had the opportunity to republish the Reuters report," Morison told Al Jazeera.
"The case clearly has ramifications for every media outlet that carries a story from any news agency."
Morison and Sidasathian denied both charges, but police are obliged to proceed, and the two journalists could face court as early as this month.
Morison recently lodged an appeal with Phuket's provincial Governor Maitree Intrusud seeking to persuade the navy to withdraw the suit.
If the charges are not dropped and the journalists are convicted, they could face up to two years' imprisonment on the criminal defamation charges and five years in prison for breaching the controversial Computer Crimes Act, as well as a fine of up to 100,000 baht ($3,037).
Activists condemn lawsuit
The lawsuit against Phuketwan has been condemned by human rights groups.
"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," said Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, a humanitarian group. "Rights groups should unite to call on Thailand to quash these defamation charges."
Clearly, this strategy is designed to protect official impunity by punishing the two courageous journalists who have reported stories about officials either pushing off Rohingya boats, or selling Rohingya into the hands of traffickers.
On December 29, Human Rights Watch said the navy was seeking to "punish" Phuketwan by adopting a "shoot the messenger" strategy.
"Clearly, this strategy is designed to protect official impunity by punishing the two courageous journalists who have reported stories about officials either pushing off Rohingya boats, or selling Rohingya into the hands of traffickers," Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, told Al Jazeera.
"The Navy's actions send a chilling message to other journalists and researchers that draconian criminal libel laws and the Computer Crimes Act can and will be used to ensure silence when they uncover unpleasant truths that portray government officials in a bad light."
Robertson also sought the intervention of Thailand's prime minister in the case. "Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra should immediately order the navy to stand down by withdrawing the complaint, and should instruct her attorney general to refuse to prosecute the case," he said.
Yingluck has pledged to work with the United Nations and United States to investigate allegations of Rohingya abuse at the hands of Thai authorities.
In an editorial headlined "Yingluck's empty promise over Rohingya", The Nation newspaper wrote on December 29: "If the Navy thinks this lawsuit will restore its tarnished image, it needs to think again. If it really wants to improve its reputation, the Navy needs to launch a thorough investigation into the allegations. It's not too late. But the longer the authorities wait, the dumber they look."
'Must fight on'
While the Phuketwan journalists have been sued, the Reuters writers have not faced any action over the original report as of yet, the news agency said in an email.
Morison said the website would continue to cover the Rohingya issue.
"The Rohingya are still fleeing Myanmar and are often being abused and mistreated in and around Thailand. They have no spokesperson, no leader, but through Phuketwan's ongoing coverage, the torment of one of the world's most persecuted minorities continues to be revealed," Morison said. "We have to keep doing our duty as journalists."
He said Phuketwan is mostly funded by his savings, adding he often thought of shutting it down before the navy sued him.
"But now having the navy try to close us down means we must fight on," he said.
Follow Shaikh Azizur Rahman on Twitter: @azizinnews