An Australian journalist and his Thai colleague appeared in the Phuket provincial court on Tuesday, charged with reporting Thai naval officers allegedly accepted money to turn a blind eye to the trafficking of Rohingya Muslims.
Alan Morison (67) editor of the independent news website Phuketwan, and his colleague Chutima Sidasathian, 32, are being sued for defamation and violating the Computer Crime Act due to a paragraph which was used by Reuters in a Pulitzer Prize-winning report on the Rohingya issue in 2013.
Involvement of naval officers in trafficking has been denied by the Thai navy, but after the two journalists were charged. An investigation was launched against the trafficking trade and a senior military official was arrested as a result.
The two journalists could get more than seven years prison sentences if they are found guilty of the charges.
The Australian journalist described the case as “a vindictive reaction on the part of one or two officers” adding that the case will damage Thailand's reputation by creating reactions all around the world.
Human right groups turned their eyes on the trial and are strongly criticising the Thai military government while demanding it drop the case.
The rights advocacy group PEN American Center said that “The government of Thailand should refocus its energies on curbing collusion in human rights abuses by members of its own navy, rather than frivolous attempts to camouflage them by shackling the press.”
Phil Robertson, the deputy director from Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said in a statement that these two courageous journalists should be defended on their fearless fight.
International media and observers flew in to watch the trial. The Australian embassy sent officials as well, according to a video record in the courtroom which is too small to host the observers.
Morison closed his website to visitors during the trial, with a post saying “Our reporting on vital matters about Phuket and Thailand will come to an end next week and may never resume.”
Last week, eight human rights groups issued a public appeal to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to withdraw the lawsuit, saying that the legal action damages Thailand’s democracy by discouraging freedom of expression.
Following May’s power grab, the Thai junta began to enhance censorship and put pressure on media workers.
In May, Thai prime minister warned journalists that he would "probably just execute" those who did "not report the truth."
According to a 2015 report by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF), Thailand ranks 134 out of 180 countries with respect to press freedom as the country’s ranking was 130th in 2014 and 135th in 2013.