Journalists face jail in Thailand for people-smuggler report

national April 17, 2014 00:00

By Agence France Presse

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Two journalists face jail if found guilty of defamation after citing a Pulitzer-prize winning report alleging Thai military links to people-smuggling, one of them said Wednesday, raising fears for media freedom in the kingdom.

Australian editor Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian are due Thursday to hear the criminal charges brought by the Thai navy at a court in the southern island of Phuket.

They could face up to two years' imprisonment for defamation and five years for breaching the Computer Crimes Act, as well as a $3,100 fine.

The complaint relates to an article published by their independent news website Phuketwan in July last year. It  quoted an investigation by Reuters news agency, which said some members of the military were involved in trafficking Muslim Rohingya asylum-seekers who had fled Myanmar.

Reuters was this week awarded a prestigious Pulitzer prize for journalism for the investigation.

Chutima, who has covered the Rohingya issue for eight years and helped Reuters with its investigation, accused the Thai navy of seeking to muzzle "small media" with the defamation complaint.

"We won't apply for bail, this is a bad law and it is an issue of the freedom of the press. This should not happen to the media in a democratic country," she said ahead of the hearing.

Phuketwan is a small but  respected English-language news website based in Phuket. In December the United Nations urged Thailand to drop the charges, warning of a "chilling effect" on press freedom.

The stateless Rohingya are considered by the UN to be one of the world's most persecuted minorities. They have long made the perilous journey from Myanmar by boat.

But the numbers fleeing to Thailand increased rapidly after Buddhist-Muslim clashes in 2012 in the western state of Rakhine. Many are believed to be trying to reach Muslim Malaysia.

Rights groups have raised concern about alleged cases of boats being pushed back out to sea after entering Thai waters.

They have also criticised the detention of hundreds of Rohingya in overcrowded facilities while Thailand waits for a "third country" to offer to take them.