Journalists in Thailand Face Prison for Quoting Pulitzer-Prize Report

In a bleak indication of Thailand’s growing hostility to press independence, two Phuket journalists were due to go on trial Friday in a defamation suit brought by the Royal Thai Navy for quoting a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by the Reuters news agency on the navy’s involvement in trafficking Rohingya immigrants from Myanmar. The two were jailed briefly Thursday at the start of the proceedings before supporters raised bail money.

A navy captain, in a statement to local media, threatened to charge Reuters as well for its prize-winning series. However, the issue is being seen as a cudgel being used to intimidate local publications from reporting on widespread military excesses and corruption.

The two journalists are Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, the editor and reporter, respectively, for Phuket Wan, a small English-language website on the resort island of Phuket, which in the past has mostly covered local problems and tourism issues. However, the two have reported aggressively on the mistreatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that has come under savage attack by the country’s majority Buddhist population. Tens of thousands have fled Myanmar, making Thailand their first stop.

“Phuket Wan thanks everybody for their support and hopes all goes well in Phuket Provincial Court on Friday morning,” the publication said Thursday in a statement. “We aim to be back reporting as soon as we possibly can, hopefully Friday afternoon.”

There have been widespread reports of abuse of the Rohingya by the Thai Navy including human trafficking and towing boats back out to sea to leave their refugee passengers exposed to peril. Although the bulk of the Thai media including English-language publications in Bangkok have given the Rohingya short shrift, Phuket Wan has regularly reported on their plight.

In July, as a part of its own articles on the Rohingya, Phuket Wan quoted from a special investigative report by Reuters, that last week won its authors, Jason Szsep and Alistair Bell, the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Quotations from the articles were apparently enough for navy officials. Last December, Morison and Chutima were arrested on charges of defaming the navy and of violating the country’s much-criticized Computer Crimes Act. The two are potentially subject to five years in prison and fines of Baht100,000 (US$3,108).

International press watchdogs and human rights organizations have been universally critical. “It is intolerable that journalists are being prosecuted for just doing their job by relaying information of general interest that had already been made public,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Bringing charges under the controversial Computers Crimes Act in a defamation case is indicative of the critical state of freedom of information in Thailand and amounts to an attempt to gag the media. We support these journalists, who are facing a possible five-year jail term, and we call for the immediate withdrawal of these proceedings.”

"The trial of these two journalists is unjustified and constitutes a dark stain on Thailand's record for respecting media freedom,” said Brad Adams, director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “The Thai Navy should have debated these journalists publicly if they had concerns with the story rather than insisting on their prosecution under the draconian Computer Crimes Act and criminal libel statutes. It's now time for Thailand's leaders to step in and order prosecutors to drop this case, and end this blatant violation of media freedoms once and for all."

Despite the international condemnation, the navy isn’t backing away. It seems also that both the Thai media and local human rights organizations aren’t taking much notice. Neither the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) nor the Thai Journalist’s Association has offered assistance, Chutima told Khao Sod, a Thai-language national daily. She also said a letter to the government’s Rights and Liberty Protection Department went unanswered.

The case sets a worrying precedent because it is the first time the Thai military has made use of the Computer Crimes Act.

The navy is hardly alone. Since its political crisis began several years ago, Thailand has employed an ever-widening range of restrictive measures against the press and public dissent, including its lese-majeste law, which is designed to suppress criticism of the country’s royal family, particularly its revered king, Bhumibol.

Between the lese-majeste law and the Computer Crimes Act, some 75,000 websites had been blocked by court order as of 2010. The total has since soared far beyond that. Tens of thousands more are believed to be blocked without court orders.

With reporting by Saksith Saiyasombuth, who blogs for Asian Correspondent