PHUKET (AFP) - Two journalists, including an Australian editor, were found not guilty of criminal defamation by a Thai court on Tuesday, their lawyer said, 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.
Alan Morison and his Thai colleague 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 members were involved in trafficking Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar.
"The court has acquitted (the pair)," their lawyer Siriwan Vongkietpaisan told AFP shortly after the verdict was delivered at Phuket Provincial Court.
"Phuketwan had only presented their (Reuter's) 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, a crisis that eventually forced Southeast 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.
- People smuggling networks -
Speaking to AFP after the verdict, 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 both a blind eye to, and complicity in, the trade.
But a crackdown in May led to the unravelling of vast people smuggling networks and in July Thai prosecutors announced 72 people had been indicted, including local officials and a senior army general.
However, no other military figures have been arrested, something that has raised eyebrows among rights groups and observers who say it is unlikely such an influential officer would have acted alone.
Last month - for the second year in a row - Thailand was placed by the United States on the bottom tier of its ranking of countries failing to tackle human trafficking alongside nations like Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria.
The current crackdown came after the reporting period of the State Department's latest "Trafficking in Persons" report ended and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha has expressed hopes his country will be upgraded next year.
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.
David Crundwell, a chief spokesman for Reuters, said the agency was "pleased" to hear the verdict.
"Reuters wholeheartedly supports the principles of a free press, and the imperative of journalists across the world to publish independent and reliable news," he said.
The navy has 30 days to appeal against the verdict.