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Navy lawsuit 'case study in press freedom'

Phuketwan pair sued for defamation

Chutima Sidasathian, a reporter working for Phuket-based news website Phuketwan, says the alleged defamation case brought against her and her Australian editor by the Royal Thai Navy will become a case study in the state of press freedoms in the Kingdom.

Chutima was speaking before she and Alan Morison were presented before the Phuket Provincial Court yesterday charged with defamation in accordance with the Computer-related Crime Act 2007.

They were both granted bail.

Chutima said the lawsuit misused a law that was intended to prosecute computer crime.

The two journalists were hit with the lawsuit for advertising and publishing what the Navy claimed was a false statement.

The lawsuit, filed in December in accordance with Article 14(1) of the Act, stemmed from the website's decision last July to publish Reuters' Pulitzer-winning special report on the smuggling of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The report implicated Thai authorities in the smuggling network. Chutima and Morison face up to five years in jail and a fine of Bt100,000. They face another two years in prison for criminal defamation.

Bail was requested by the Andaman Community Rights and Legal Aid Centre, which placed Government Savings Bank lottery tickets worth Bt200,000 as security.

Many Phuket-based journalists went to give Chutima and Morison moral support, as well as to cover the story.

Human Rights Lawyers' Association co-ordinator Phanom Bukhiew said the association had come to the aid of the journalists by providing them with legal representation, partly because it hoped to set a precedent for press freedom in Thailand.

'Law misused'

He said the Computer Crime Act was meant to prevent electronic-information theft and had nothing to do with the publication of information useful to the public.

A number of human-rights groups, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, have issued statements expressing concern over Thailand's press freedom and called for the case to be dropped.

On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders reiterated its call for the withdrawal of proceedings against Chutima and Morison.

Benjamin Ismal, the head of Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific, said: "This case highlights the urgent need for reform of the Computer Crimes Act, which is responsible for frequent violations of freedom of information by the authorities. It is also essential that the international media operating in Thailand should give this trial coverage despite government pressure to ignore it."

Phuketwan said Chutima would discuss the matter in detail before an audience in Melbourne on April 29.


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