Journalists charged with criminal defamation in Thailand

Bangkok, December 20, 2013–The Royal Thai Navy should immediately drop the criminal defamation charges lodged on Wednesday against two journalists in connection with a report on alleged military abuses of ethnic Rohingya people, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, reporters for the news website Phuketwan, were charged under the 2007 Computer Crime Act at the Vichit police station on the southern island of Phuket, according to a Phuketwan report. They were released after being charged and told to report to the police station on December 24, the report said.

If convicted, each journalist faces five years in prison and/or fines of 100,000 baht (US$3,125). Both reporters have denied the charges.

The complaint was filed by Captain Panlob Komtonlok on behalf of the Royal Thai Navy, the first time a representative of the Thai armed forces has used the Computer Crime Act to sue journalists, according to Phuketwan.

The charges stem from the headline of and a paragraph in a story published on July 17 in Phuketwan that alleged the Thai military was involved in trafficking-for-profit of minority Rohingya boatpeople who fled persecution in Burma and entered Thai waters. Thai Navy authorities have denied the allegations.

Morison told CPJ that the headline and several paragraphs of the story had originally been published in a Reuters Special Report that Phuketwan had reprinted and credited in its story. The Phuketwan story also included independent coverage.

“Rather than shooting the messenger, the Royal Thai Navy would be better suited launching an internal investigation into the serious allegations of abuse that have been raised,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “This type of legal intimidation aims ultimately at discouraging media reporting on allegations of serious human rights abuses.”

Barb Burg, Reuters’ global head of communications, released a statement on Thursday saying: “Our story was fair and balanced and Reuters has not been accused of criminal libel.”

Thai officials quoted in news reports earlier this year said that they will push back boats of Rohingya refugees that arrive in Thai sovereign waters. Human Rights Watch said in a March statement that Thai Navy officers fired on and killed two Rohingya refugees during a push-back operation on February 22, 2013.

“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,” Phuketwan said in a statement released on Wednesday in response to the charges. “By instead using a controversial law against us, the Navy is, we believe, acting out of character.”