Originally published at Siam Voices on April 17, 2014 UPDATE: After spending five hours in court cell, Phuketwan reporters Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian are released on bail (100,000 Baht each) and are remanded to appear in court again on May 26, according to a report by Australia's The Age.
The trial against two Phuket journalists for alleged defamation is set to begin today. The Royal Thai Navy has sued Phuketwan reporters Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian for their coverage of the Thai authorities' involvement in human trafficking of Rohingya migrants from Burma. This has been complicated by the fact that the offending passage was a quote from another report done by the international news agency Reuters. Both are facing up to seven years in prison if found guilty.
The charges were filed in December last year (see our original blog post here). Both journalists were charged not only for libel, but also also allegedly breaching the Computer Crimes Act, which makes arbitrary legal suits against online dissent (including by third parties) possible thanks to the vague wording of the law. Phuketwan - which has reported extensively on the plight of the Rohingya at the hands of Thai authorities - has quoted from a Reuters special report that specifically accuses members of the Royal Thai Navy of being involved in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees.
The case has drawn international condemnation and has now seen an interesting development:
Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for international reporting on the violent persecution of a Muslim minority in Myanmar [Burma], the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University announced.
The board commended Jason Szep and Andrew Marshall of Reuters for their "courageous reports" on the Rohingya, who in their efforts to flee the Southeast Asian country, "often falls victim to predatory human-trafficking networks."
"Reuters, Guardian US, Washington Post, Boston Globe win Pulitzer prizes", Reuters, April 14, 2014
A list of their coverage can be seen here.
Several observers have noted that the Royal Thai Navy have so far not pressed charges against the global news agency Reuters, but instead after the local Phuketwan and to "make an example of them for others," as Bangkok Pundit blogged yesterday.
Several journalists and media advocacy groups have repeated their calls to drop the charges against Morison and Sidasathian ahead of today's trial. Their case - as with the plight of the Rohingya refugees themselves - has received hardly any coverage in the Thai-language media:
However, [Chutima Sidasathian] said she received little or no help from the Thai authorities. Neither the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) or the Thai Journalist Association (TJA) has offered their assistance in the legal procedure, Ms. Chutima told Khaosod, while her letter to the Rights and Liberty Protection Department went unanswered.
"I filed the letter to the officials in Phuket last month. I just discovered that somehow they did not forward the document to Bangkok," Ms. Chutima said, "I am shocked".
She is also disheartened by the fact that the lawsuit against Phuketwan has received very little coverage in the Thai mainstream media.
"Phuket Journalists To Face Lawsuits Filed By Navy", Khaosod English, April 8, 2014
The case has already set a worrying precedent - it is reportedly the first time the Thai military has made use of the Computer Crimes Act - and things could get even worse if they are convicted. It shows that the Thai authorities have no apparent interest in the treatment of Rohingya migrants in Thailand (as summarized here) or investigating the human trafficking allegations.