Journalists face criminal defamation charges in Thailand

Bangkok, April 17, 2014–A Thai court today formally charged two journalists for the local Phuketwan news website with criminal defamation, according to news reports. The charges were brought by a Thai navy official. 

Alan Morison, an Australian national, and Chutima Sidasathian, a Thai national, were detained for five hours today in Phuket while their bail application was processed, according to an email from Morison to CPJ and others. Court authorities also seized Morison’s passport, the message said. The journalists were released on bail.

If convicted of the criminal charges, including alleged violations of the vague 2007 Computer Crimes Act, Morison and Chutima each face a maximum of seven years in prison and fines of US$3,010, news reports said. The trial is scheduled to begin on May 26, according to the reports.

The charges stem from a paragraph in a story the two journalists jointly published in Phuketwan in July 2013 about the alleged trafficking by rogue elements inside the Thai military of Muslim Rohingya people who had fled persecution in Burma. The paragraph in question was excerpted from a Reuters special report on the alleged human trafficking activities, according to news reports. Chutima had previously been commissioned by Reuters to assist its reporters with their Rohingya-related coverage in Phuket, according to Phuketwan and news reports.

“The charges brought today against Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian aim ultimately to curb further reporting on the Thai military’s alleged involvement in gross human rights abuses,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Regardless of the case’s eventual verdict, these state-backed charges will inevitably lead to self-censorship among reporters covering the Thailand angle of Burma’s multifaceted Rohingya refugee crisis. Phuketwan should be commended, not punished, for its groundbreaking coverage of the story.”

Reuters’ Thailand-based reporters Jason Szep and Andrew R. C. Marshall won the Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting this week for a year-long series of reports on the plight of Burma’s minority Rohingya population. Thai authorities also filed a criminal complaint under the Computer Crimes Act against Szep and Malaysia-based Reuters reporter Stuart Grudgings, who contributed to the report in question, according to a Reuters report.

The Phuketwan case represents the first time a Thai military official has used the 2007 Computer Crimes Act against journalists who have criticized military activities in their reporting, according to local reports. The controversial law, passed by an appointed administration after a 2006 military coup, has been used by other authorities to pressure and intimidate online journalists, editors, and political activists.