Two journalists and their small online news organization went on trial in Thailand today charged with defaming the country's navy, because they reprinted quotes from a Reuters article on human trafficking.
The report by Phuketwan website repeated allegations made by a smuggler to Reuters that naval forces accepted money to turn a blind eye to the seaborne trafficking of refugees from Myanmar.
Denying the allegation, the navy also charges the site's Australian editor Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathien with violating Thailand's Computer Crime Act by publishing the article online. If found guilty, the pair could each face up to seven years in prison and fines totaling 300,000 baht ($8,815).
The contested report by Phuketwan used part of an extensive story published by the international news agency in July 2013, and was one of a series about persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority that won Reuters the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Reuters was not sued.
The trial opened with the testimony of navy captain Pallop Komlotok, who confirmed he filed the defamation case on behalf of the navy, Siriwan Vongkietpaisan, a lawyer for the accused, told AFP. "He also confirmed that the Phuketwan quotes were lifted from Reuters article," she said.
The case has drawn criticism from human rights and press freedom groups around the world.
The New York-based literary and rights advocacy group PEN American Center recently urged the government of Thailand to "refocus its energies on curbing collusion in human rights abuses by members of its own navy, rather than frivolous attempts to camouflage them by shackling the press."
"The Phuketwan journalists are among the few who are still regularly reporting on the pervasive human trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand," Human Rights Watch's Asia Director Brad Adams said in a statement in April. "Thailand's efforts to show progress in tackling human trafficking are seriously damaged by this shoot-the-messenger action against journalists exposing abuses."
The Phuketwan case comes to trial in the wake of the discovery in May this year of dozens of bodies buried at several jungle camps on the Thai-Malaysian border where traffickers held migrants as prisoners. Most of the migrants are ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar who face persecution and poor economic opportunities at home. In many cases, the migrants pay to be smuggled by ship, but are then detained by traffickers in Thailand, who hold them for ransom from their families, or sell them.
Human rights activists and foreign governments have long accused Thai authorities of collusion in the trafficking industry but police, military and government officials have denied the allegations.
The recent publicity about the camps caused a major Thai government crackdown on trafficking, and the several dozen people were arrested, including a Thai army general and local officials. Many police were transferred from their posts.
Morison, 67, a native of Melbourne, Australia, told The Associated Press the two journalists have "been waiting a long time for this to happen purely because we refused to acknowledge that we've done anything wrong."
"More than once we've been asked to apologize and we've resisted that at every opportunity," he said.
The Royal Thai Navy has ignored calls for the charges to be dismissed.
"This is a criminal lawsuit and the charges for the Computer Crime Act cannot be dropped. The matter is being handled by the committee set up by the Royal Thai Navy," navy spokesman Rear Admiral Karn Dee-ubol told AP, adding that he was unable to comment further.
Thai courts rarely rule against the military, which is in an even stronger position than usual since staging a coup in May last year that deposed an elected civilian government.
The court is expected to set a date for the verdict after three days of hearing witnesses from both sides this week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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