Testimony has begun in a criminal defamation lawsuit the Thai navy has filed against a small news website over a report it posted alleging naval forces accepted money to abet or turn a blind eye to the trafficking of refugees from Burma.
The Australian editor of the Phuketwan website, Alan Morison, and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian could face up to seven years in prison if found guilty of defamation and violating the Computer Crime Act by publishing the article online.
The paragraph said to defame the navy, which was taken directly from a Pulitzer Prize-winning article by Reuters, stated:
“The Thai naval forces usually earn about 2000 baht per Rohingya for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye,” said the smuggler, who works in the southern Thai region of Phang Nga and deals directly with the navy and police.
Reuters has not faced defamation charges over the original article.
The case has drawn criticism from human rights and press freedom groups around the world.
Foreign governments and rights groups have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry, but police, military and government officials have denied the allegations.
Alan and I have arrived at Phuket Provincial Court for day one of the Phuketwan trial, now going into the courtroom pic.twitter.com/c5TLKLIpRI
— Chutima Sidasathian (@OiChutima) July 14, 2015
The United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia (OHCHR) repeated its calls Tuesday for the charges against the two journalists to be dropped.
“OHCHR urges the Thai authorities to drop the charges against the two journalists. Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest,” the statement said.
Speaking to Asian Correspondent before the trial, Morison said he felt the pair had been “ambushed” by Thai authorities, and accused the navy of “picking on the little guy”.
“I was deeply disappointed with the misguided action of the Royal Thai Navy to take action against us,” he said.
Additional reporting from Associated Press