Phuketwan journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian. Pic: Phuketwan.com.

Two Phuketwan journalists were charged today with defaming the Thai Navy, and face seven years in prison and a $3,000 fine if convicted.  A Thai Navy captain brought charges against Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian after they republished a paragraph from a Reuters story accusing Thai officials of being involved in a human trafficking operation that exploits Rohingya refugees from Burma. Morison, who is Australian, is Phuketwan’s editor and Chutima is a reporter. The Reuters story was part of a series that won journalists Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall a Pulitzer Prize earlier this week.

The morning of their court appearance, Human Rights Watch released a statement from Brad Adams, director of the organization’s Asia division, saying:

The trial of these two journalists is unjustified and constitutes a dark stain on Thailand’s record for respecting media freedom. 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.

Morison expressed disappointment on behalf of himself and Chutima that Reuters has not been in contact with either of them and has not taken a stronger stand on their case. “Chutima is surprised and shocked that nothing has been said in defence of media freedom and Phuketwan by the organisation she helped, with her usual generosity, to win the Pulitzer. I am deeply disappointed, and I expect many others will be, too,” said Morrison, according to a piece on andrew-drummond.com.

When asked for comment, a Reuters spokesperson reiterated the organization’s statement that, “We oppose the use of criminal laws to sanction the press – large or small, local or international – for publication on matters of public interest, like the Rohingya.”

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand issued a statement congratulating Szep and Marshall for a series that exposes “the systematic abuse of Rohingyas in Myanmar [Burma] and in Thailand.” The statement went on to say that “while a large media organization is being feted for its reporting, two poorly-funded local journalists are facing prosecution for their reporting of the same issue – and indeed for publishing material from a Thomson Reuters report.”

“These two journalists have done more than most to report accurately from Thailand the plight of Rohingyas,” the statement read. “They have also rendered invaluable assistance to journalists at Thomson Reuters and other local and foreign media organizations attempting to report this humanitarian crisis.”

Asked about Chutima’s contribution to the reporting effort on the winning stories, a Reuters spokesperson responded, “We retained Khun Chutima, a Phuketwan local journalist, in a very limited role to help us make appointments. She was not a member of the team of Reuters journalists who reported and investigated on these stories, nor did we report any information that should have been credited or otherwise attributed to Ms. Chutima.”

Although other news outlets republished the Reuters story, only Phuketwan has been targeted with criminal charges. Morison has said he believes Phuketwan is being targeted because of its long-standing reporting efforts to expose the criminal treatment of Rohingya refugees. He has called the navy’s case “an outrageous attempt to the muzzle the media,” and affirmed that he and Chutima are willing to go to jail to defend press freedom.

The Phuketwan journalists’ situation has drawn international attention and criticism of the Thai government. Media outlets including The Guardian, CNN, Huffington Post, and Al-Jazeera have reported on the case, and Human Rights Watch and the UN have insisted that the government drop the case and focus on investigating the allegations of abuse. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement that ran on both Phuketwan and a Thomson Reuters Foundation site.

“Taking Phuketwan’s journalists to court is absurd,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, in the statement. “If the navy want to dispute the Reuters special report, which has just won a Pulitzer Prize, it can publicly give its version of events and demand the right of reply.” Ismaïl emphasized that Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act urgently needs reform, as it “is responsible for frequent violations of freedom of information by the authorities.”

He added that it is “essential that the international media operating in Thailand should give this trial extensive coverage despite government pressure to ignore it.”