PHUKET – Four local and international journalists reported to Phuket police on Wednesday to hear criminal defamation charges made against them by the Royal Thai Navy (RTN) regarding coverage of Rohingya boat people, causing another dent in the fragile press freedom of Thailand.
A captain acting on behalf of the RTN has accused two Phuketwan journalists of damaging the reputation of the service and of breaching the Computer Crimes Act. Two journalists from Reuters news agency are facing similar charges.
The Phuketwan journalists, Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, denied the charges and were fingerprinted when they presented themselves Wednesday at Vichit Police Station, south of Phuket City. They are due to reappear on Dec 24. The pair could face a maximum jail term of five years and/or a fine of up to 100,000 baht, if found guilty.
The accusations centre on a paragraph in a report by Reuters on July 17, 2013 that was in part republished in online media, including Phuketwan, later the same day.
Mr Morison, the Phuketwan editor, told the Bangkok Post that he was shocked to receive the summons and to learn about the use of the Computer Crime Act (CCA) for criminal defamation charges.
“The RTN’s choice of the controversial law (CCA) is like using a sledge hammer to crack a little walnut. What the RTN could have done regarding the issue is either call us and discuss the matter with Phuketwan or hold a press conference to explain the case about the Rohingya situation,” said Mr Morison, a veteran media man from Australia.
He said Phuketwan simply carried the accusations made by a reputable international news agency, Reuters, claiming RTN involvement in the plight of the Rohingya.
“In fact, it would be a good opportunity (for the RTN) to tell us the truth,” said Mr Morison after hearing the charges.
He said the lawsuits worked against press freedom and had become counterproductive and alarming.
With the motto “Brave Enough to Change”, Phuketwan has won international awards for upholding human rights and for its investigative reporting of Rohingya issues.
It issued an emotional statement at the end of the fingerprinting, saying that “Ironically, it was Navy Vice Admiral Supot Pruksa who first introduced Phuketwan journalists to the word ‘Rohingya’ during an interview at the Navy Base on Phuket in October, 2008. Just a few weeks later, the Royal Thai Navy supplied Phuketwan with photographs of boatpeople being apprehended, and lined up in neat rows on Andaman beaches. And it was a Royal Thai Navy spokesman who first suggested in December 2008 that the United Nations should be involved in the process of dealing with the increasing numbers of boatpeople fleeing Burma.”
Phuketwan, the statement said, took the hint from the RTN and began seriously investigating what was happening to Rohingya boat people off the coast of Thailand. It discovered that Thailand’s military was involved in inhumane pushbacks.
“When other news organisations accused the Navy of being involved, Phuketwan’s journalists defended the Navy. We said it was not the Navy but another branch of the military. Since then, we have continued to closely report what has been happening to the Rohingya boat people. We are shocked to learn now that the Navy is using a controversial law to sue Phuketwan for criminal defamation,” the statement said.
The newspaper said that the Rohingya have no spokesperson and no leader. “But through Phuketwan‘s ongoing coverage, the torment of these people continues to be revealed. Their forced exodus from Burma is a great tragedy. Yet how they are treated in the seas off Thailand and in Thailand remains a constant puzzle,” the two-page statement said.
“We wish the Royal Thai Navy would clear its reputation by explaining precisely what is happening to the Rohingya in the Andaman Sea and in Thailand. By instead using a controversial law against us, the Navy is, we believe, acting out of character,” it said.
“It is a worrying trend, when – and if – Thai authorities and companies make increased used of the draconian CCA and defamation charges in Thailand in an attempt to silence, harass and disrupt the important commitment and work of reputable and hard working researchers and journalists,” said British activist Andy Hall, who has also been charged under the CCA. – Bangkok Post