A leading international rights group called on Thai authorities on Friday to investigate the navy’s alleged role in the trafficking of desperate migrants from Myanmar instead of charging journalists for reporting on the subject.
Thailand’s navy filed criminal defamation charges late last year against the English-language Phuketwan website for publishing stories alleging military involvement in the trafficking of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya.
Two journalists from the media outlet are due to report to public prosecutors on Monday, when they may be formally charged for publishing false information defaming the navy. If found guilty, the accused face up to five years in jail and a fine of 100,000 baht (HK$24,000).
Human Rights Watch said the navy “should cease its efforts to silence the journalists and instead permit civilian authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into alleged trafficking and other serious mistreatment of Rohingya ‘boatpeople’ by navy personnel”.
Phuketwan has for several years taken a leading role reporting the plight of the minority Muslim Rohingya, who are fleeing persecution, abuse and poverty in Myanmar.
In July, Phuketwan posted a story carrying excerpts from a report by the Reuters news agency alleging that members of the Thai military were involved in trafficking captured Rohingya illegal immigrants.
The lawsuit filed by a captain on behalf of the Thai navy charges that the website violated Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crime Act, which bars the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security or that causes panic. Reuters, whose stories have included denials of abuse by the Thai navy and government, has not been charged with any violations.
“The Thai navy’s heavy-handed response to news reports of mistreatment of migrants shows a startling disregard for rights abuses,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, he said, “should not allow the navy to play ‘shoot the messenger’ and curtail media reporting on government abuses”.
Navy officials could not immediately be reached for comment.