Phuketwan Case Puts Spotlight on Media Freedom in Thailand

By BenarNews Staff
150706-TH-editors-620 Phuketwan editors Alan Morison and Chutima “Oi” Sidisathian are to stand trial on defamation charges, starting July 14.
Courtesy of Lana Willocks and Phuketwan

Updated at 8:17 a.m. ET on 2015-07-07

Two editors of an independent news website that has chronicled the hardships of Rohingya refugees in southern Thailand will stand trial next week on defamation charges brought by the Royal Thai Navy. editors Alan Morison and Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian could go to prison for reprinting a paragraph from a report by Reuters that implicated Thai navy personnel in human trafficking, and which was part of an investigative series that earned the news agency a Pulitzer Prize last year.   

Morison and Chutima each face up to seven years in prison – plus fines – if convicted. They were charged in April 2014, including on charges of breaching Thailand’s Computer Crime Act of 2007, which bars circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security.

Their trial is set to open at Phuket Provincial Court on July 14.

Morison and Chutima say they are willing to face jail time to uphold the cause of press freedom in Thailand.

''We are being forced to fight for the right to a free and unfettered media. Everybody except the government can see the failings in this case,” Morison, a 66-year-old Australian expatriate and co-founder of Phuketwan (“Sweet Phuket”), told BenarNews.

Reuters off the hook

The criminal case stems from Phuketwan’s decision to reprint an excerpt from the report that Reuters published in July 2013, which implicated navy personnel in the trafficking of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar through Thailand.

''A Reuters investigation, based on interviews with people smugglers and more than two dozen survivors of boat voyages, reveals how some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya,'' the excerpt reads.

The British news agency stood by its story after the Thai navy complained about the report’s accuracy.

According to the Bangkok Post, naval officers also threatened to sue Reuters as well, but later backed down and focused instead on going after the editors of Phuketwan, which is based on the island of Phuket.

Dogged reporting

Phuketwan has been covering human trafficking and the plight of Rohingya for years –long before a scandal broke this year in southern Thailand, in which 119 people, including a three-star Thai army general, were implicated in alleged people-smuggling rings.

Morison and Chutima first found out about the trafficking of Rohingyas – a stateless Muslim minority fleeing persecution in Buddhist Myanmar – during a trip along the coast north of Phuket in 2008.

Since then they have developed extensive contacts and posted many stories about the Rohingya. The website’s coverage of the issue picks up during each “sailing season,” from November to April, when migrant-boat traffic resumes following annual monsoons.

The two were charged before the Thai military seized power in a May 2014 coup.

The junta has not intervened in the Phuketwan case, but it has clamped down on free speech. In Bangkok last month, Thai authorities arrested 14 anti-junta demonstrators and shut down three press-related events at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT).

''There is still a chance for the government of Thailand to settle this issue honorably and honestly. But time is running out,” Morison told BenarNews.  

“If the government wishes to sacrifice its reputation and its tourism industry to a commitment to old-fashioned face-saving, that would be very sad. We hope common sense prevails.''

International attention

The defamation case has injected new life into the website, which was on the brink of shutting down due to financial troubles last year, before the Navy pressed charges against Morison and Chutima.

In fighting the case the two have received financial help from groups such as the Andaman Community Rights and Legal Aid Centre, and the London-based Media Legal Defense Initiative.

Their legal team reportedly comprises more than 10 Thai lawyers from groups including the Human Rights Lawyers' Association, iLaw and SR Law.

“This gagging of independent voices has become widespread in Thailand, where free expression violations are on the rise as the military junta tightens its grip on civil society and the media,” Karin Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at the PEN American Center, said in a statement on June 30.

“Phuketwan is one of the only news sources in Thailand committed to pursuing the story of the Rohingya, whose plight has become a matter of urgent international concern,” she added.

Last month, an editorial in the Bangkok Post called on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to drop the case against Morison and Chutima and reprimand the navy officers who brought charges against them.

“It is unjust that a citizen or business should face prison because of criticism of an arm of government,” it said.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Alan Morison and Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian were married.


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