Pulitzer prize, Reuters, Rohingya, the Thai Navy, and Phuketwan
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Pulitzer prize, Reuters, Rohingya, the Thai Navy, and Phuketwan

First, some background. The Rohingya have been systematically mistreated over the years, including by the Thai military. Below is an excerpt from a previous post which summarizes much of what transpired with the Rohingya in late 2008/early 2009:

The Nation should think back to the beginning of the year when the Rohingya were towed out to the sea by the Thai military (see here, here, and here). The reason we found about this story because some of the Rohingya boat people who had been towed out to sea by Thai military survived and made it to Indonesia and India after drifting for a number of days without food and water (see hereand here). The number who died we will never know – the internal Thai investigation unsurprisingly found nothing – but from statements given to the Indonesian and Indian governments and to the media by survivors, it appears to be in the hundreds. We have extensive coverage by the South China Morning Postand CNN (the CNN reports won a prestigious award) – you also have coverage by the BBC and Al Jazeera, amongst others. We had foreign governments specifically criticize the Thai government handling of the Rohingya.

Then, of course, we saw the typical Thai government and bureaucracy response with the the military (see here and here), the Foreign Minister, a Senator, and aDeputy PM criticize the international media saying they wanted to slander Thailand and that they could not be trusted in their coverage of the Rohingya boat people. Eventually the military admitted they towed out (or in Foreign Ministry speak “escorted“) the Rohingya in their boats and dumped them in the middle of the ocean, but well no action was taken against anyone.

BP: Similar stories about Rohingya being towed out to see also popped up in 2010 and 2011 although again we had Thai denials. There was a lull in 2012, but in January 2013 a Rohingya asylum seeker who was found by the Sri Lankan authorities accused the Thai military of forcibly intercepting them and disabling their engine and sending them back out to see. The result was more than 90 people are meant to have died.

After all this criticism, it seemed some decided why dump at sea when we can sell them to human traffickers (Thais say no trafficking of Rohingya; just smuggling) and make money. It is also alleged some Rohingya were shot as well. See posts from BP and Saksith last year respectively here, here, and here. Reuters then wrote a series of stories about the Rohingya. Below is a complete list of the stories:

July 17, 2013 Authorities implicated in Rohingya smuggling networks
December 5, 2013 Thailand secretly supplies Rohingyas to trafficking rings
December 5, 2013 Thailand’s anti-trafficking effort loses steam
April 8, 2013 Buddhist monks incite Muslim killings in Myanmar
May 14, 2013 In Myanamar, apartheid tactics against minotiry Muslims
June 27, 2013 Myanmar gives official blessing to anti-Muslim monks
June 27, 2013 The 969 catechism
January 17, 2014 Cover letter for entry


BP: As you can see particularly the July and December stories, there is a Thai connection and particularly the connection between those on the Thai side (we will say unspecified entities on the Thai side as the Thai Navy like to sue for criminal defamation if they are named). After Reuters series of articles in July, Phuketwan used some of the information in their stories. It should be noted that both in late 2008/2009, 2010, 2011, and in 2013 that Phuketwan (through editor Alan Morison and reporter Chutima Sidasathian) closely covered the story on the role of the military whether through original reporting or excerpting stories from others with some comments. So what did the Thai Navy do? Investigate to find the truth? No. They sued Phuketwan. AP in January:

Thailand’s navy has filed criminal defamation charges against a news website that published stories alleging Thai military involvement in the trafficking of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya boatpeople, an editor said.

The English-language Phuketwan site in July posted a story carrying excerpts from a report by the Reuters news agency alleging that members of the Thai military were involved in trafficking captured Rohingya illegal immigrants.

Alan Morison, Phuketwan’s editor, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he had been summoned along with one of Thai reporters on Wednesday to a police station in Phuket to formally acknowledge the charges.

The lawsuit filed by a captain on behalf of the Thai navy charges that the website violated Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crime Act, which bars the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security or that causes panic.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on the Thai government to withdraw the case, saying it could have “a choking effect on all investigative reporting in Thailand.”

“The Thai navy’s lawsuit is a reckless attempt to curtail journalists’ reporting on alleged human trafficking by its officers,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director said in a statement issued Friday. “The Thai navy should understand that in a democratic society, media scrutiny of the security forces must be possible.”

Phuketwan has for several years taken a leading role in reporting on the plight of minority Muslim Rohingya from Burma fleeing persecution and poverty to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The journey is a perilous one, and they are often forced back out to sea or detained if they make landfall.

BP: See also Saksith’s post in December which has some more details. The case against Phuketwan was proceeding, but so far as BP understands there is none against Reuters. Reuters wrote about the lawsuit in December:

The top U.N. human rights official urged Thailand on Thursday to drop criminal charges against two journalists accused of defamation for citing a Reuters investigation into the role of Thai naval security forces in smuggling Rohingya asylum seekers.

A Reuters investigation, based on interviews with people smugglers and more than two dozen survivors of boat voyages, revealed in July how some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in Rohingya fleeing Myanmar to escape religious persecution.

Thailand’s navy denied the Reuters report, which was published in July. Select portions of Reuters’ report were later cited by Phuketwan, a small English-language newspaper based in Phuket.

“The criminal charges against Mr. Morison and Ms. Sidasathian could have serious implications on Phuketwan’s future operations, possibly compromising its ability to report on issues related to Rohingya asylum seekers to the public,” it said.

BP: The case was proceeding against Alan and Chutima, but there is a new twist. The above series of articles by Reuters has won a Pulitzer prize for “international reporting”. The 2014 citation reads :

Awarded to Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters for their courageous reports on the violent persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that, in efforts to flee the country, often falls victim to predatory human-trafficking networks.

This has not deterred anyone on the Thai side. CNN:

Phuket’s public prosecutor, Wiwat Kijjaruk told CNN Friday there was enough evidence to proceed with the case.“Even though the two said that they just republished an article from Reuters … they should have checked the facts before doing so,” he said.

Prosecutors should be investigating the poor treatment of Rohingya boat people instead of targeting journalists. Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch

If convicted, Morison and Chutima could face up to seven years in jail.

BP: It is somewhat curious that the Navy didn’t sue Reuters, but then again it makes perfect sense. Reuters are a big organization with lots of resources; Phuketwan aren’t. Pick on the small guy and make an example of them for others. The Guardian:

Morison told the Guardian that he and Sidasathian had been formally charged “for bringing the Royal Thai Navy into disrepute” but that these charges could be a direct attempt to stop Phuketwan – a small online news outlet that Morison founded in 2008 – from publishing more investigative reports on the Rohingya. A search on Phuketwan’s database returned roughly 900 references of the word “Rohingya” over the last six years, many of them related to independent reports by Phuketwan journalists over the fate and treatment of Rohingya on Thai soil.

The other egregious thing about the case is the issue of criminal defamation. Criminal defamation on its own is bad enough when an individual files a case. It is worse when it is a corporate entity, but now we have hit the jackpot with this case. It is a government entity (all articles refer to the Thai Navy filing the suit and references to an organization as a whole). They don’t like what you write so they sue you. Information from an article which was part of a series which won a Pulitzer prize vs the reliability of the Thai Navy. Well, BP puts more trust on the former than the latter. Hopefully, the Streisand effect will be in full force now and the magnitude of the situation with the Pulitzer prize will make the Navy realize the error of its way and lead to the dropping of the lawsuit…

btw, just seen a post from fellow AC blogger Casey on this issue.