Phuket journalists cleared of defamation charge

Mr Alan Morison, editor of the Phuketwan website, and reporter Chutima Sidasathian outside the provincial court in Phuket yesterday. They were facing up to seven years in jail.
Mr Alan Morison, editor of the Phuketwan website, and reporter Chutima Sidasathian outside the provincial court in Phuket yesterday. They were facing up to seven years in jail.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

PHUKET • Two journalists, one of them an Australian editor, have been found not guilty of criminal defamation by a Thai court over a report implicating the kingdom's navy in human trafficking.

They were also acquitted of another charge of breaching the Computer Crimes Act in a high-profile trial that had sparked widespread condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations.

Mr Alan Morison and his Thai colleague, Ms Chutima Sidasathian, of the Phuketwan news website, had faced up to seven years in jail over a July 2013 article quoting a Reuters news agency investigation which said some Thai navy personnel were involved in trafficking Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar.

"The court has acquitted (the pair)," their lawyer, Ms Siriwan Vongkietpaisan, said yesterday shortly after the verdict was delivered at Phuket Provincial Court.

"Phuketwan had only presented their (Reuters) information that had already been published on their website," she added.

The verdict comes after the region's grim people-smuggling trade was dramatically laid bare this year when migrants were abandoned at sea and in jungle death camps by traffickers following a Thai crackdown.

The crisis eventually forced South-east Asian governments to respond.

The two journalists had been facing up to two years in jail for criminal defamation and five years for breaching the Computer Crimes Act after the navy sued Phuketwan for defamation over their article.

Speaking after the verdict, Ms Chutima said: "The judge did the right thing, this is a big step for freedom of expression and freedom of the media in Thailand.

"I am happy that the court clearly said that the information we presented was useful to society and that they were not defamatory."

Southern Thailand has long been known as a nexus for lucrative and largely unchecked smuggling networks through which persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and Bangladeshi economic migrants, among others, would pass on their way to Malaysia.

Officials have been accused by human rights groups of turning a blind eye to and complicity in the people-smuggling trade.

But a crackdown in May led to the unravelling of vast people-smuggling networks.

In July, Thai prosecutors announced 72 people had been indicted, including local officials and a senior army general.

Reuters has not been charged over its reporting - part of a series honoured with a Pulitzer Prize last year - and rights groups had accused the navy of trying to muzzle the smaller Phuket-based English-language media outlet.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'Phuket journalists cleared of defamation charge'. Print Edition | Subscribe