Thailand must drop charges against journalists who exposed the plight of Rohingya refugees

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 1:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 1:28am

Were it not for journalists, the world would be mostly in the dark about the plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. They have revealed packed boats being prevented from landing, human-trafficking networks and jungle camps and mass graves on the Thai-Malaysian border. Amid claims of the involvement of officials, investigations are under way, arrest warrants issued and a Thai general suspected of involvement has turned himself in. Events should have vindicated Phuket news website editor Alan Morison and reporter Chutima Sidasathian, who go on trial next month on charges of defamation and committing a computer crime.

The pair, who have been covering the Rohingya story for years and contributed to the South China Morning Post's award-winning reports on the refugee crisis in 2010, face two years in jail if found guilty. Yet they have committed no crime; they have merely been doing their jobs as journalists. Charges were brought against them by an officer of the Thai navy after their website, Phuketwan, quoted a Reuters news agency report that received a Pulitzer prize alleging "naval forces" and immigration officials were involved in trafficking of members of the discriminated-against ethnic group. At the time, caretaker premier Yingluck Shinawatra promised her government would work with investigators, but no inquiry was ever launched. The journalists were instead sued for besmirching the navy's name and as recent accounts have shown, little appears to have been done to help the refugees.

Government agencies have a right to defend their reputation, but they also have to be open to media scrutiny. If an accusation is made against a military institution or one of its officers, an independent and transparent inquiry should be conducted. Intimidating journalists by accusing them of defamation only serves to stifle freedom of the press while ignoring the issue in question. The charges against Morison and Chutima should be dropped.