Media intimidation in Thailand over Rohingya must stop
A report on the Rohingya boat people from Myanmar alleging involvement by the Thai authorities in human trafficking was part of a series that won a prestigious Pulitzer Prize for journalism for Reuters news agency. When editor Alan Morison and reporter Chutima Sidasathian quoted just 41 words from it on their Phuket news website Phuketwan, they faced a lawsuit from the Thai navy for criminal defamation and computer crime. That is ironic, considering it was Morison and Chutima who, in 2009, helped draw attention to the plight of the Rohingya, with reporting for the South China Morning Post that also won major journalism awards. Happily, Phuket Provincial Court has thrown the case out. This was a welcome victory for freedom of the press in an increasingly hostile environment under the country's military rulers.
Ordinarily acquittal may have seemed the most likely outcome on charges that could have resulted in up to seven years' jail. The Australian and his Thai colleague had republished material that Reuters had already published on its own website without being sued by the authorities. But it was far from assured, given that Thailand has experienced a wave of prosecutions that appeared designed to intimidate journalists and activists and deter them from writing or speaking out about corruption and, especially, human-rights abuses. There was also the issue of face, with Morison having said that the pair had repeatedly resisted official pressure to apologise.
Were it not for Morison, Chutima and others the world may have remained largely ignorant of the inhumanity of boats packed with refugees being prevented from landing, trafficking networks, and jungle camps and mass graves on the Thai-Malaysian border. Investigations have unravelled networks and prosecutors say they have indicted 72 people, including local officials and a senior army general. Government agencies should be able to defend their reputations, but they should also be open to media scrutiny. Intimidation of the media through restrictive defamation laws muzzles a check on abuse of power.