The United Nations and international human rights groups expressed concern yesterday over the trial of Phuketwan journalists who have reported intensively on the smuggling of Rohingya and noted alleged involvement of the Thai Navy.
The UN and rights groups have called on the Navy to drop its defamation charge against journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian for the benefit of freedom of expression and combating human trafficking. But the military government and Navy rejected the calls and continued the court trial against them.
Morison and Chutima started a three-day trial at Phuket Provincial Court yesterday for publishing an article that quoted a paragraph from an investigative report by Reuters on the smuggling of Rohingya asylum seekers. Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize for its report on human trafficking while Phuketwan was later sued by the Navy.
The article ran on Phuketwan, a small English-language website based in Phuket, on July 17, 2013. The two journalists face charges of criminal defamation and violating the Computer Crime Act. If convicted, Morison and Chutima face up to seven years in prison.
Phuketwan has been a leading source of information on the plight of Rohingya asylum seekers since 2008. International human rights standards uphold the right of journalists and others to disseminate information that is of legitimate public interest.
In April, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression raised concern that there have been increasing arrests and prosecutions under the Computer Crime Act and called for an end to criminalisation of dissenting opinions.
The United Nations Human Rights Office urged Thailand to drop charges against the two journalists. "Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest," the UN said in a statement.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said allowing the trial to go ahead showed the government's unwillingness to respect media freedom.
"Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha should have ordered the Navy to stand down and withdraw the charges - but instead he effectively endorsed their effort to gag media critics, and in doing so, administered another body blow to what little remains of Thailand's international rights reputation," he said.
"The real message of this trial to Thailand's journalists is report at your own risk because big brother in Bangkok is watching - but fortunately, when they went after Alan and Chutima, the Navy and the ruling military junta came up against two courageous journalists who are not afraid to fight for their principles," he said.
Human Rights Watch and other rights groups wrote a letter to Prayut last week asking him to drop the charges against the two journalists.
Commander Pallop Komlotok, a representative of the Navy for the trial, said the Navy did not want to have a dispute with the media but sued the journalists to protect its right.
Chutima said her testimony would begin today but she felt relaxed after hearing initial testimony by the naval official.