BANGKOK (International Federation of Journalists/ Pacific Media Watch): Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian and Australian journalist Alan Morison have been acquitted of all criminal defamation charges from the Phuket Provincial Court, an act which is being heralded by regional journalism bodies as a victory for press freedom in Thailand.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Southeast Asia Journalist Unions (SEAJU) are now calling on the South East Asian governments to immediately repeal all laws supporting criminal defamation across the region in support of press freedom.
In the ruling yesterday the judge, Justice Chaipthawat Chaya-ananphat, also said it was not appropriate for authorities to use the Computer Crimes Act as a way of punishing journalists for defamation as this law relates to hacking and malicious software.
Sidasathian and Morison, of phuketwan.com, were charged with criminal defamation in April 17, 2014, after the defamation allegations were made in December 2013.
They were charged, under articles 326 and 328 of the Thai Criminal Code.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment and a fine of up to 200,000 baht (USD $6000).
The pair were also charged with violation of article 14(1) of the Computer Crimes Act, which carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and a fine of up to 100,000 baht (USD $3000).
The charges followed the republication on the Phuket-based website on July 17, 2013, of a single paragraph from a Reuters special report on Rohingya boat-people, which alleged the Thai Navy’s involvement in the boat people issue.
The phuketwan.com story subsequently became the target of defamation allegations by a Thai navy captain, R.N. Pallop Komlotok, in December, 2013.
The same year, Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigation.
In delivering his verdict, Justice Chaipthawat Chaya-ananphat said Sidasathian and Morison were merely reporting what Reuters had already published and they were not their own words.
He also found that no damage was shown to the Royal Thai Navy and that the translation which referred to the Royal Thai Navy was a mistranslation.
On July 14, 2015, Sidasathian and Morison faced a two-day trial at the Phuket Provincial Court.
During the trial, the prosecution did not attend leaving all defence evidence unchallenged.
IFJ and Media Enterntainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) legal observer, Australian barrister Mark Plunkett, was also at the trial and observing yesterday's verdict.
“This is a timely reminder to call for a repeal of pernicious criminal defamation and computer crimes law that threaten the freedom of speech for all people in Thailand but are directed at stifling the freedom of news media by threatening and intimidation (sic) all journalists reporting on news in Thailand," he said.
"The prosecution of journalists and threatening lengthy goal terms in and outside of Thailand for reporting the news is a grotesque oppression that stifles the development of Thailand.”
The IFJ commended Justice Chaipthawat Chaya-ananphat on today’s verdict and said, “it is important that today Thailand’s courts and we hope this will send a message to the region’s leaders against the trend to increasingly control freedom of expression in the online space.”
“We have argued from the beginning it is an attempt to silence critics of Thailand and its government."
The IFJ state that the decision marks the need to end the criminalization of free speech in Thailand and to "let journalists go about their duty of informing the public without let or hindrance".
SEAJU also welcomed the acquittal of the journalists and said,“across the South East Asia region criminal defamation is becoming a tool to stifle press freedom and to intimidate journalists. This needs to stop."
"Action needs to be taken by governments to repeal laws that suppress freedom of speech," they said.
Journalists to be 'applauded'
Australia’s MEAA chief executive officer Paul Murphy, said this was a vitally important case.
"The use of criminal defamation laws to muzzle the media and stifle free expression is a real threat to public interest journalism," he said.
"Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian should be applauded for their courageous news stories highlighting the plight of the Rohingya people. Instead, their lives and their work was thrown into upheaval for two years during this case.”
Murphy said the fact that the Navy didn’t pursue Reuters, but chose instead to pursue Morison and Sidasathian, is "indicative of a frightening attempt to intimidate, harass and silence local news media".
"Alan and Chutima were determined to take a stand for press freedom and the public’s right to know despite the prospect of seven years’ jail in a Thai prison. For that, we should all be grateful.”
The IFJ and SEAJU call on the prosecution and the Thai Royal Navy to accept this milestone verdict as a victory for freedom of the press and not appeal.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand Licence.