[Update]: Court dismisses charges against Phuketwan journalists sued by Thai Navy

A provincial court in southern Thailand has dismissed defamation charges against two journalists accused of defaming the Royal Thai Navy for reporting an allegation that ‘Thai naval forces’ were involved in trafficking Rohingya.

The provincial court of the southern province of Phuket on Tuesday morning dismissed defamation suits against Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, two journalists from the Phuketwan news website, who were accused of defaming the Royal Thai Navy for reporting the Navy’s alleged involvement in trafficking Rohingya in Southern Thailand.

The two journalists’  report on 17 July 2013 included a quotation from a Reuters’ article entitled “Special Report: Thai authorities implicated in Rohingya Muslim smuggling network,” which accused Thai naval forces of earning 2,000 baht per Rohingya for cooperating with human traffickers in Phang Nga, a province just north of Phuket.

The Royal Thai Navy in December 2013 filed charges under Article 14/1 of the 2007 Computer Crime Act, which prohibits importing false information into computer system, and under the criminal defamation law, Article 328 of the Criminal Code.

The court reasoned that the accused cited information from Reuters, which is a reliable international news outlet, and did not write the information alleging the Thai Navy of taking parts in human trafficking themselves. Therefore, the accused were not guilty of violating Article 328 of the Criminal Code, which stipulates that persons who commit defamation against others by means of document publications, drawings, paintings, films, pictures, or by any other means could be liable for two years imprisonment.

The judges also acquitted the two journalists of offences under Article 14 of the Computer Crime Code, saying that the information they cited does not appear to be false or cause harms to national security.   

Thai naval officer Captain Panlob Komtonlok, plaintiff on behalf of the Royal Thai Navy, stated that the problematic paragraph “is false information which caused disgrace and harm to the reputation of the Navy.”

Early on, Morison and Chutima denied all charges. “If the Navy really have nothing to hide and are truly not involved in this, they should just hold press conference clearing up their image. Using a lawsuit is just plainly the wrong solution,” said Chutima.

In the trial, Chutima testified to the court that after reading the Reuter’s report alleging the Thai authorities’ involvement in Rohingya trafficking rings, she unsuccessfully contacted several Navy officials for clarification on the matter and also reported the Royal Thai Navy’s statement, which denied the allegations.

Chutima said that she also contacted Lt Gen Manas Kongpan, then the Director of the 4th Division of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), who has now been charged with 13 counts of human trafficking and related offences.

According to Niran Pitakwachara, a commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) who testified in the case as a defence witness, Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act has been largely misused.   

He mentioned that the law has been mostly used to prosecute those who expressed certain political opinions online and those accused of defaming the monarchy under Article 112 of the Criminal Crime Code, the lèse majesté law.  

Sawitri Suksri, a law lecturer of Thammasat University and an expert on computer crime, who also testified in the case, commented that Article 14 of the 2007 Computer Crime Code is a major obstacle to freedom of expression.

She said that the wordings of the law is confusing and leaves too much room for personal interpretation by judicial officers, resulting in its misuse.       

Since the beginning of the court case, international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have expressed grave concerns over the charges against to two journalists, calling on the Navy to drop charges immediately.

“The Navy's decision to sue Phuketwan marks another dark day for press freedom in Thailand and shows clearly how easily the Computer Crime Act can be abused,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director, adding that the government should abolish the “draconian CCA law,” to prevent similar abuse of journalists in the future.

Voicing similar concerns were media freedom advocates the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) who condemned the action of the Royal Thai Navy.

“Targeting a small online news outlet for publishing what is essentially a humanitarian story reflects a bully’s strategy to silence critics, sending a strong warning that anyone who expresses something they disapprove of will be prosecuted,” said SEAPA in their statement.

Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s South East Asia Campaigns Director, pointed out that although the court’s ruling is positive, it does not mean that the general situation of freedom of expression in Thailand has improved.  

“The acquittal of these two journalists is a positive decision, but the fact is that they should never have had to stand trial in the first place let alone face the possibility of years in jail. The Thai authorities have again shown their disregard for freedom of expression by pursuing this case,” said Benedict.   

Since its establishment in 2008, Phuketwan, has won several international human rights awards for their investigative reporting on the Rohingya refugees, who flee persecution and violence in Rakhine state in Eastern Myanmar.