A criminal defamation case against Australian journalist Alan Morison is proceeding in Thailand after negotiations to have the charges dropped had failed.
The action was filed against Mr Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathien by Thailand’s navy over a Reuters report posted on the Phuketwan website. A section of the report is alleged to have suggested some navy officials had accepted money to assist in the trafficking of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar by sea.
As well as the criminal defamation charge, Mr Morison and Ms Sidasathien face a count of violating Thailand’s Computer Crime Act by publishing the article online. If found guilty, the two could each face up to seven years in jail, as well as fines.
The contested report was part of an extensive piece published by Reuters in July, 2013. The Reuters story was one of a series about persecution of the Rohingya that won the agency the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
An AP report yesterday says the Phuket court was told by the trial’s first witness, Captain Pallop Komalodaka, that the navy also filed a suit against Reuters, but that case remains with the prosecutor’s office, pending action.
Captain Pallop said the navy had talked to Phuketwan about the possibility of dropping the defamation charges, but the negotiations failed.
“We had asked them to hold a press conference to apologise publicly for the article, but they said they would only express regrets. Therefore, a deal wasn’t struck,” he testified.
He said the allegations against the navy had been investigated and “so far we have not found any wrongdoing”.
AP says Thai courts rarely rule against the armed forces, particularly after a military coup in May last year that deposed the elected government.
The court is expected to set a date for the verdict after three days of testimony from witnesses this week.
The case is being closely watched by media bodies, human rights activists and foreign governments, following unsuccessful direct representations by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Ambassador Paul Robilliard for the charges to be dropped.
The bulk of the legal costs for Mr Morison and Ms Sidasathien is being met by the London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative.
Mr Morison, 67, who started his career at the Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne, said he believed the case was filed because Phuketwan had been reporting extensively on the Rohingya boat people for seven years.
“More than once we’ve been asked to apologise and we’ve resisted that at every opportunity,” he told AP, describing the lawsuit as “a vindictive overreaction”.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said: “The real message of this trial to Thailand’s journalists is report at your own risk because big brother in Bangkok is watching – but fortunately, when they went after Alan and Chutima, the navy and the ruling military junta came up against two courageous journalists who are not afraid to fight for their principles. They deserve the international community’s unstinting support.”
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