- Thai navy files criminal defamation and computer criminal charges against journalists
- Phuketwan cited a Reuters' report implicating authorities in trafficking Rohingya migrants
- Human Rights Watch warns the move will curtail media freedom in Thailand
The Thai navy has filed criminal charges against two journalists over a report tying military personnel to human trafficking.
The criminal defamation and computer crimes charges against the reporters from Phuketwan -- a news website in the province of Phuket -- relate to the July 17 article that included information from a Reuters investigative piece that alleged some Thai naval forces have been profiting from the smuggling of ethnic Rohingya migrants fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar.
According to the charge sheet, the navy accuses the journalists of knowingly publishing false information and committing slander.
If found guilty, veteran Australian journalist and editor of Phuketwan, Alan Morison as well as reporter Chutima Sidasathian, a Thai citizen, could face up five years behind bars.
A navy official filed the suit against Morison and Chutima last week on December 16. Two days later the journalists were fingerprinted at a Phuket police station and denied all charges, Morison told CNN.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the move, warning the charges threaten press freedom in Thailand.
"The Thai navy's lawsuit is a reckless attempt to curtail journalists' reporting on alleged human trafficking by its officers," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a statement issued Thursday.
"Unless the government withdraws the case, its impact will be felt far beyond those reporting on abuses against the Rohingya -- and could have a choking effect on all investigative reporting in Thailand," he added.
Journalists from Reuters could face similar charges over the original article, according to Human Rights Watch, however the news agency said that it has not been notified of any legal action.
"Our story was fair and balanced and Reuters has not been accused of criminal libel," said Reuter's Global Head of Communications, Barb Burg.
Denying the charges, Morison said the Reuters report was published by media outlets around the world and the actions of the Thai Royal Navy has him and his colleague puzzled.
"The mystery is why the navy has chosen to sue Phuketwan journalists over these allegations," Morison and Chutima said in a statement.
"The article at the center of the charge on Phuketwan was a selection from the Reuters special report on the Rohingya. The paragraph and headline in question does not name the Royal Thai Navy," Morison told CNN on Sunday.
"The navy's action over one paragraph has created a perfect storm. If the navy proceeds with the case, the Rohingya issue is now tied up in their action against media under a controversial law."
An official from the Royal Thai Navy, who asked not to be named, told CNN the navy, "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."
"Phuketwan and Reuters jounalists have put out their accusing statements without reaching us and providing us at least a fair chance to explain," the official added.
Morison, 65, is originally from Melbourne. He produces Phuketwan.com and also freelances for international media, including CNN, the The Sydney Morning Herald and the South China Morning Post. He worked for CNN as CNN.com Asia Deputy Editor in 2001-2002 and has been in Phuket for 11 years.
He and Chutima are due to return to the police station for further investigation on December 24. Morison said it is expected police will ask for formal statements from the reporters.
If convicted, they could face jail time of up to five years under Thailand's controversial Computer Crimes Act, as well as a fine of up to 100,000 baht ($3,300).
The Computer Crimes Act, which came into force in Thailand in 2007, seeks to bar the spread of material believed to threaten national security or create panic. But the law has attracted criticism from freedom of expression advocates and global internet providers for making online users liable for reproducing content originally published by others.
It's believed to be the first time an arm of the Thai military has used the law against the media, Morison said.
He described the authorities' response to the Reuters story as like "breaking a butterfly on a wheel."
Phuketwan, although a small organization, has become known for its investigations into allegations of abuse against Rohingya people in Thailand and corruption on the island of Phuket.
Each year, boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya fleeing ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar are intercepted in Thai waters by authorities.
Thailand has a policy of what it calls "helping on" the Rohingya to Malaysia. Several media reports and rights advocates claim some Rohingya end up in the hands of people smugglers who demand money for their release.