Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the trial of two website journalists that is due to begin on 14 July in the southwestern province of Phuket and calls for all the charges to be dropped. Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of its Asia-Pacific desk, will be present as an observer at the trial, which is expected to last three days.
Alan Morison, the Australian editor of the Phuket-based news website Phuketwan, and Chutima Sidasathian, one of his Thai reporters, are facing up to seven years in prison on charges of defaming the Thai navy and violating the Computer Crimes Act (CCA), a draconian 2007 law that gives the authorities a great deal of leeway to gag online critics and arrest journalists and bloggers for political reasons. Morison and Chutima were charged in December 2013 in connection with a July 2013 article quoting a paragraph from a Reuters special report on the smuggling of Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Burma to Malaysia via Thailand and the involvement of Thai human traffickers. Along with other media outlets and NGOs, these two journalists were among the first to draw attention to the trafficking in Rohingya refugees and the abuses to which they are exposed. The quoted paragraph claimed that “Thai naval forces” were paid to turn a blind eye to this people trafficking but did not explicitly name the Thai Royal Navy. Although they charged Morison and Chutima, the Thai authorities have never made any attempt to bring legal proceedings against Reuters. “The trial of these two journalists, who just did their job as news providers with a great deal of professionalism, poses a great danger to all those independent voices in Thailand who want to use their freedom of expression and information,” Ismaïl said. “We urge Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his military government to end their policy of harassing the media. They need to understand that the media do not threaten national security or political stability but, on the contrary, help to improve society.” More than a year has passed since the military staged a coup in Thailand, but freedom of information continues to decline as Gen. Prayut keeps on threatening the media and tightening his grip on their activities. On 25 June, the government organized a meeting with journalists to teach them how to ask questions that would not offend him. Government spokesman said the meeting was held with 200 local and foreign journalists in order to promote their “understanding” of the government. In March, the prime minister said he would “probably execute” journalists who did not toe the government line. The foreign media are also harassed. A Bangkok round-table discussion organized by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) and Human Rights Watch was cancelled at the last minute by the government on 26 June. It was to have coincided with the release of a Human Rights Watch report on the persecution of Montagnard Christians, a religious and ethnic minority, in Vietnam. The government said it could have “affected relations” between Thailand and Vietnam and endangered “national security.” It was the third time in a month that the military government has ordered the cancellation of an event organized by the FCCT. The FCCT has meanwhile reported several cases of foreign journalists having problems renewing their accreditation. Thailand is ranked 134th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2015 press freedom index.