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Decision to dismiss case has implications for controversial Computer Crime Act

Alan Morison, right, Australian editor of the website Phuketwan and his colleague Chutima Sidasathien speak to the media ahead of their appearance in court to face charges of violating Thailand's Computer Crime Act in Phuket, Thailand, on 14 July 2015
Alan Morison, right, Australian editor of the website Phuketwan and his colleague Chutima Sidasathien speak to the media ahead of their appearance in court to face charges of violating Thailand's Computer Crime Act in Phuket, Thailand, on 14 July 2015

AP Photo/Thanyarat Doksone

This statement was originally published on on 1 September 2015.

A Thai court on Tuesday dismissed a criminal defamation case brought up by the Royal Thai Navy against two journalists of a small news website in this island city.

The verdict also said that the controversial Computer Crime Act shall not be used to prosecute defamation.

"I am fantastic," Alan Morison, one of the two journalists, told reporters after the verdict reading. "We are grateful to the judiciary system of Thailand."

Chutima Sidasathian, Morison's colleague, said: "The outcome does not benefit only Phuketwan, me and Alan, but also people in Thailand."

Judge Chaipawat Chaya-anantapat, in reading the verdict, said that the story published by the English-language was mainly excerpts from a Reuters story, and even the single paragraph the navy cited to sue the website was republished word-for-word from the Reuters story.

The judge then concluded that Morison, a 67-year-old Australian, and Chutima, a 33-year-old Thai, and Big Island Media Co., Ltd., which operates the news website and is represented by Morison, did not commit any defamation against the Royal Thai Navy.

Misuse of Computer Crime Act

In analyzing the alleged wrongdoing of the two journalists under the Computer Crime Act, Judge Chaipawat said the story that appeared on the Phuketwan website did not include any false or forged statement as stipulated in Section 14 of the Act.

He then read: "The intention of Section 14 does not set out to penalize defamation."

He finally said the court dismissed the case of the Royal Thai Navy, which was not represented by anyone at Tuesday's verdict reading.

The lawsuit was brought up against Phuketwan by the Royal Thai Navy out of a news article published on the news website on 17 July 2013, that was headlined "Thai Military Profiting from Trade in Boatpeople, Says Special Report".

In the complaint filed by state prosecutors on 17 April 2014 with Phuket provincial court, the navy, however, cited only one paragraph it alleged to be defamatory in the story published in Phuketwan.

That paragraph, republished word-for-word from the Reuter story, said: "The Thai naval forces usually earn about 2,000 baht per Rohingya for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye, said the smuggler, who works in the southern Thai region of Phang Nga (north of Phuket) and deals directly with the navy and police."

Verdict may discourage further use of CCA on defamation

The judgment in analyzing the application of Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act is likely to discourage further use of the provisions to sue for online defamation.

Section 14 (1) of the Computer Crime Act says any person who is involved with importing into a computer system of forged or false computer data, in part or in whole, "in a manner that is likely to cause damage to a third party or the public" could be punished with imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of up to 100,000 baht (about US$2,850) or both.

The terms "to cause damage to a third party" have been interpreted to include damaging people's reputation, and, hence, the provisions have been applied to prosecute online defamation.

During the trial, a defence legal expert told the court that the provisions were meant to prosecute forging of documents electronically, which prior to the Computer Crime Act of 2007 could not be addressed under any Thai law.

Section 14 (1) also carries stiffer penalties than defamation provisions under the Penal Code, which allow for only up to two years of imprisonment.

The trial of the Phuketwan case ran for three days from 14 to 16 July 2015, during which the prosecutor produced four witnesses while the defendants brought in seven witnesses, including Morison and Chutima.

The prosecutor, after presenting four witnesses on the first day of the hearing, was absent on the other days, telling the court that she did not want to cross-examine the defence witnesses. Such absence is not uncommon in Thai court.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • CPJ welcomes acquittal of journalists charged with defamation in Thailand

    "CPJ is relieved by today's court decision to drop criminal charges against Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian," said Shawn W. Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "Authorities should follow up on today's verdict by scrapping the draconian laws, including the Computer Crime Act, that are too often abused and misapplied to threaten reporters and stifle free speech."

  • Journalists acquitted in key Thai criminal defamation case

    SEAJU also welcomed the acquittal of the journalists: "Across South East Asia region criminal defamation is becoming a tool to stifle press freedom and intimidation journalists. This needs to stop. Action needs to be taken by governments to repeal laws that suppress freedom of speech."

  • Thai navy attack fails to sink news website

    "Even in a Thailand ruled by the military, the navy should not be able to deter journalists from investigating and other journalists from quoting their findings, which incidentally did not target the navy directly. The attempt to torpedo this local website has failed but it has been hurt financially and the lawsuit will have a dissuasive effect as it could encourage other journalists to censor themselves."

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