Thailand: Journalists on trial for defamation, trial dragged out
June 5, 2014, 5:44 am
Australian journalist Alan Morison has declared he is prepared to go to jail to defend media freedom in Thailand where defamation laws are being increasingly used to silence criticism.
”This is a clear issue of freedom of media and the military exceeding its role in using an onerous law unjustly,” says Morison, 66, who edits and publishes Phuketwan, a small but popular news website on the resort island of Phuket.
A defamation lawsuit launched by Thailand’s navy against Mr Morison and his colleague Chutima Sidasathian on Christmas Eve is one of about 1600 defamation cases that were initiated in the south-east Asian country in 2013, many of them by powerful interests.
Court records show that of the defamation cases that proceed to trial in Thailand an average of 96 per cent lead to convictions, one of the world’s highest rates for the crime.
Mr Morison and Ms Chutima could face a maximum five years’ jail and fines if convicted under the Computer Crimes Act.
If convicted on criminal defamation charges they could be jailed for up to two years.
The navy’s unprecedented action has prompted criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups, non-government organisations and media outlets and unions both in Thailand and other countries.
The charges relate to a story published in Phuketwan in July 2013 that quoted a Reuters news agency investigation alleging that some members of the Thai military were involved in networks smuggling Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar.
No action has yet been filed against Reuters, a multinational company, although the navy has said charges against two of its reporters are expected to be laid shortly.
Phuketwan has closely followed the plight of the Rohingya who have been described by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted people.
Mr Morison says he and Ms Chutima have discussed the possibility of going to jail on the principle of media freedom in what would be a David-and-Goliath fight against the navy which has 70,000 active personnel.
”These are trumped up charges. There is an important principle at stake,” he says.
”The Rohingya have no spokesperson, no leader, but through Phuketwan’s ongoing coverage the torment of these people continues to be revealed.”
Mr Morison, a former senior Age editor, sold his apartment in Melbourne and set-up Phuketwan, which provides local and foreign news coverage for Phuket where an average 20,000 Australians holiday each month.
If Mr Morison is jailed he would be one of the first editors to be incarcerated in the country since the Bangkok Post’s Michael Gorman was jailed for three months over defamation proceedings in the early 1980s.
”The Thai navy’s lawsuit is a reckless attempt to curtail journalists’ reporting on alleged human trafficking by its officers,” says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
”Unless the government withdraws the case, its impact will be felt far beyond those reporting on abuses against the Rohingya Â– and could have a choking effect on all investigative reporting in Thailand,” Mr Adams says.
David Streckfuss, an American academic who is an expert on Thai laws, told a recent forum at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand that use of defamation laws ”have become a kind of way of controlling political discourse in Thailand”.
Andrew Drummond, a British investigative reporter in Thailand, said up to 30 foreigners have fled the country following threats of defamation that would involve years of litigation in the courts and thousands of dollars in bail payments.
Many of them had been swindled by criminals making the threats, he said.
Mr Morison and Ms Chutima, a respected Thai journalist, have formally denied the charges that could take years to be heard in Thai courts.
UPDATE: 17 April 2015
The Thai authorities are urged to drop criminal proceedings against two journalists for reporting on trafficking of ethnic Rohingya “boat people”, Human Rights Watch said today.
“The Thai authorities should direct the navy to unconditionally drop its baseless charges against the two journalists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This effort to silence media criticism has backfired against the navy, which should act swiftly to cut its losses.”
Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, the editor and correspondent of the news website Phuketwan, were charged one year ago, on April 17, 2014, with criminal defamation and the Computer Crimes Act based on a complaint filed by the Thai navy.
If convicted on the criminal defamation charges, Morison and Sidasathian could be imprisoned for up to two years. Under the Computer Crime Act, they face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to Bt100,000 (US$3,125). They are scheduled to go to trial on July 14-16.
The charges centered on a paragraph in the Phuketwan online newspaper on July 17, 2013, that cited a Reuters investigative report alleging that some navy officials “work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya,” and that they earn about Bt2,000 (US$63) per Rohingya “for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye.” The report was part of a Reuters investigative series on the plight of the Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority in Burma, that won a Pulitzer Prize.
In the statement released by its New York office, Human Rights Watch said that criminal defamation laws should be abolished, as criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and infringe on free expression.
“Criminal defamation laws are open to easy abuse, resulting in very harsh consequences, including imprisonment. As repeal of criminal defamation laws in an increasing number of countries shows, such laws are not necessary for the purpose of protecting reputations,” it said.
It furthered that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to impart information. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the covenant, has expressed its concern at the misuse of defamation laws to criminalize freedom of expression and has said that such laws should never be used when expression is without malice and in the public interest.
“The Phuketwan journalists are among the few who are still regularly reporting on the pervasive human trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand,” Adams said. “Thailand’s efforts to show progress in tackling human trafficking are seriously damaged by this shoot-the-messenger action against journalists exposing abuses.”
UPDATE 04/04/2014: http://www.smh.com.au/world/australian-journalist-alan-morison-says-hes-prepared-for-prison-over-thai-navy-row-20131230-hv75m.html
UPDATE 05/06/2014: www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/413632/phuketwan-journos-face-long-trial-wait