Australian editor and partner face jail in Thailand

By LINDSAY MURDOCH in Bangkok
Special for the Melbourne Press Club

Former senior Age editor and News Corp journalist Alan Morison says he has been overwhelmed by support he has received over a defamation lawsuit launched by the Royal Thai Navy, including from supporters in Melbourne.

The case that is seen as a threat to freedom of the media in Thailand has been raised by Human Rights Watch at the Pentagon, where the United States defence establishment was urged to advise the Royal Thai Navy to abandon charges against Alan and his colleague Chutima Sidasathian.

“People have been coming out of the woodwork both internationally and locally…media groups, rights groups…people from everywhere have jumped to our support,” Alan told the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand on the evening of March 5.

A scheduled meeting with a public prosecutor - the first official step in the unprecedented lawsuit - has been delayed until April.

The navy’s decision to pursue Alan and Chutima under Thailand’s criminal defamation laws and Computer Crimes Act has prompted widespread criticism, including from the United Nations.

“These are sweeping laws and their use against these terrific journalists will have a profoundly negative impact on media freedom in Thailand,” said Jonathon Head, president of the correspondent’s club and the BBC’s correspondent in Bangkok.

If the case proceeds, the journalists who write and publish the ground-breaking Phuketwan news website from the Thai resort island of Phuket may be jailed.

Alan and Chutima have declared they will stand on the principle of media freedom and not post bail if the case proceeds and it is offered by a judge.

“We are prepared to go to jail. This a bad law,” Chutima told the correspondent’s club.

Alan said he is still “scratching my head” trying to work out the motivation of the Royal Thai Navy in launching the action that could see him and Chutima, his partner, face a maximum five years jail and fines if convicted under the Computer Crimes Act and up to two years jail if convicted on criminal defamation charges.

The charges relate to a story published in Phukewan in July 2013 that quoted a Reuters newsagency investigation alleging that some members of the Thai military were involved in smuggling Muslim Rohingya boatpeople from Burma, which is also called Myanmar.

The story did not mention the Royal Thai Navy and pointed out those responsible were probably renegades.

Phuketan, which Alan founded in 2008, has won widespread praise and several journalist awards for its coverage of the plight of the Rohingya, who have been described by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted people.

Alan told the correspondent’s club there is no doubt that Rohingya who have fled persecution in Burma are dying in secret camps run by smugglers near the Thai-Malaysia border.

“The nightmare goes on without enough light being shed on who is responsible,” he said.

Alan said it will be “difficult to defend the charges ourselves for a story that was written by Reuters journalists.”

No action has yet been taken against Reuters, a multi-national company which has not commented on the action against Alan and Chutima or offered any support for them.

The company has transferred from Bangkok one of the authors of the report.

The other lives in Kuala Lumpur.

“We hope they will react in the interests of media freedom if and when they are charged,” Alan said.

If Alan and Chutima are jailed they will be sent to Phuket’s overcrowded jail that was built to hold 700 prisoners but now has almost 2,500 inmates.

Conditions there are harsh.

Alan sold his apartment in Melbourne to set-up Phuketwan which provides local and foreign news coverage for Phuket where an average 20,000 Australians holiday each month.

The lawsuit against Alan and Chutima is one of about 1600 defamation cases that were launched in Thailand in 2013, many of them by powerful interests.

Court records show that of the defamation cases that proceed to trial in Thailand an average 96 percent lead to convictions, one of the world’s highest rates for the crime.