In an ironic and shameful twist, two Reuters journalists were awarded the Pulitzer prize for covering the plight of Burma’s Rohingya while two Thailand-based reporters could face jail for republishing a paragraph from the Pulitzer-winning reports. Reporters Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall published a series of articles on the brutalities and discrimination suffered by the Rohingya, an underreported story of one of the most persecuted minorities of the day. Szep and Marshall wrote an article alleging that the Thai Navy funnels Rohingya refugees into human trafficking rings, a damning accusation. The Thai authorities took no action against the Reuters reporters. But they did target Phuketwan, a local media outlet that republished a paragraph from the Reuters story.
Australian journalist Alan Morison, editor of Phuketwan, and Thai reporter Chutima Sidasathian will appear in court tomorrow and face seven years in prison. They have been accused of defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act, for republishing a paragraph of a story written by two other journalists. Phuketwan reported that Thai Navy Captain Panlob Komtonlok claimed that the republished paragraph “damaged the reputation of the entire force.”
That the government is going ahead with this case at all, rather than commending all involved for exposing a potential case of extreme corruption and abuse of power, casts a stain on the country. International groups such as Human Rights Watch and UNHCR have called on the government to drop the case and focus on investigating the allegations rather than punishing the Phuketwan team. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that Morison and Chutima have said they are both prepared to go to prison, an outcome which should inspire outcry toward a nation that bills itself as progressive and internationally savvy, but still practices media suppression.
CNN quoted a Thai Navy official after the charges were filed against Morison and Chutima as saying it “does not intend to obstruct any media from, or threaten any media for, performing their duties. What we are trying to do is to protect our organization from false allegations.”
Morison told Al-Jazeera that the case holds implications for all outlets republishing from other reports and expressed concern that if he and Chutima go to jail, their reporting on the Rohingya refugee story stalls for the duration of their sentence. Phuketwan has reported on this issue for years and DVB noted that the outlet was praised in 2009 for coverage of Thailand’s “pushback” policy. This is exactly what it sounds like – authorities being granted permission to drag boats of refugees back out to sea, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Human trafficking is big business in the region and there have been many reports about trafficking operations that ensnare Rohingya refugees from Burma’s Rakhine state. These are among the most vulnerable people in the world, regularly caught up in anti-Muslim violence and forced from their homes into refugee camps. They are without a state or governing body to protect them. DVB noted that the numbers of people fleeing Rakhine state for safety in Malaysia by way of Thailand’s seas have “swelled” in the past two years following a surge in violence in the area.
In a chilling article by Marshall from the Pulitzer-winning series, Thai officials’ refusal to take action and responsibility on human trafficking, or a stand on the Rohingya situation, is illustrated. Thailand faces a downgrade by the U.S. State Department on its efforts to combat trafficking as enforcement numbers have dropped consistently in the past few years. Marshall quoted the State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons report as saying, “Thai police and immigration officials ‘extorted money or sex’ from detainees or ‘sold Burmese migrants unable to pay labor brokers or sex traffickers.'”
CNN reported that the Thai government “says it is committed to combating human trafficking in Thailand but denies that the Rohingya are victims of trafficking. It says that the Rohingya are migrants who consent to being smuggled.” This attitude seems irresponsible at best and downright criminal at worst. Thailand often serves as a haven for refugees fleeing poverty and war in Burma, and thousands of migrant workers cross the border to make a living. Human trafficking is a real problem in Southeast Asia and for Thailand to not only turn a blind eye to the struggle of the Rohingya, but to persecute local media calling attention to it, is a shameful act that is rightly condemned internationally.
Despite its reputation as one of the most popular vacation and ex-pat destinations in Southeast Asia, allegations of gross human rights violations and media suppression expose Thailand’s darker underbelly and rampant government corruption. After the Pulitzer announcement, Szep said the story was underreported and that he hoped greater attention would be given to this situation in Burma. Here’s hoping he’s right – and that in the process, Thailand’s unjust treatment of Morison and Chutima will continue to be exposed and condemned as well.