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Thailand urged to drop defamation, computer crimes charges against Phuket journalists

UPDATE from Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance: MEAA concerned over Thai Navy defamation case against Australian editor (29 January 2014)

On 18 December 2013, two journalists based in Phuket, Thailand were charged under the country's controversial Computer Crimes Act for relaying a report implicating the Thai Navy in human trafficking.

Journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian of the online tourism news site Phuketwan appeared before a Phuket police station to be fingerprinted after receiving summonses for an online article published on 17 July titled, "Thai Military Profiting from Trade in Boatpeople, Says Special Report."

The article quoted extensively from a Reuters article titled, "Special Report: Thai authorities implicated in Rohingya Muslim smuggling network".

The article describes the role of security authorities - not just Thai and not just the Navy - who profit from the exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine state in eastern Myanmar, to escape persecution and violence.

Captain Panlob Komtonlok of Royal Thai Navy 3, which has jurisdiction over the Andaman coast, filed the criminal charges under section 14 of Thailand's controversial Computer Crimes Act of 2007 and for damaging the reputation of the service.

Morison and Chutima were scheduled to appear before the court on 24 December for indictment, SEAPA reported on 19 December. If found guilty they could face a jail term of up to five years and a 100,000 baht (approximately USD 3,300) fine. *******

SEAPA condemns this unjustified action, which is a form of intimidation against members of the media who publish critical stories against state authorities.

If the Thai Navy wants to disprove its tolerance of the acts of its personnel described in the article, a better approach would have been to conduct or allow an impartial official investigation into the matter of complicity on the crime of human trafficking against Rohingya refugees.

Targeting a small online news outlet for publishing what is essentially a humanitarian story reflects a bully's strategy to silence critics, sending a strong warning that anyone who expresses something they disapprove of will be prosecuted. The Navy is thus using its authority for the wrong purpose of silencing critics instead of for upholding accountability of the conduct its forces and its overall duty to respect human rights.

Their action also reinforces the criticism against the Computer Crimes Act of 2007, which makes online users liable for content originally published by others. While it is not clear at this point whether similar charges will be filed against Reuters or their reporters, we wish to reiterate that such an approach is flawed.

SEAPA also reiterates the media and human rights community's long-standing call to decriminalize defamation, in order to better uphold the right to freedom of opinion expression and press freedom.

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