Phuket – The trial of an online defamation case against two journalists of a small news website located in this southern island city began Tuesday under the watch of many international and regional human rights and media organizations for its possible effect on press freedom under the country’s military regime.
The lawsuit was brought up against English-language Phuketwan.com 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”. The story was about the smuggling of minority Rohingya ethnic groups out of Myanmar and was mainly excerpts from an award-winning investigative report by Reuters.
One defamatory paragraph
In the complaint filed by state prosecutors on 17 April 2014 with Phuket provincial court, the navy, however, cited only one paragraph that it alleged to be defamatory in the story published in Phuketwan.
That paragraph 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.”
The prosecutors claimed that Alan Morison, 67, and Chutima Sidasathian, 33, the two journalists at Phuketwan, and Big Island Media Co., Ltd., which operates the website and is represented by Morison, jointly put the false statement into the computer system of Phuketwan, harming the navy’s reputation.
Testifying as the key witness of the prosecutors, Navy Captain Pallop Komalodaka, deputy director of intelligence division, Third Naval Area Command, whose jurisdiction covers Phuket, said he first found the story in Phuketwan and since Phuketwan referred to Reuters as its source of information, he later located the original story on Reuters websites.
Pallop admitted that the same Reuters story was also published in other Thai-language media.
But he told SEAPA privately that he could not find the paragraph the navy claimed to be defamatory in other Thai media.
Although the original Reuters story included many details of the Rohingya smuggling and trade and the alleged involvement of various Thai government agencies, Pallop said it was the mentioning of earning about 2,000 baht per Rohingya that upset the navy.
He said though he was not fluent in the English language, it was some linguistic experts in the navy who interpreted the paragraph in question and found it defamatory.
Pallop told the court that usually various Thai units separately patrol the sea. But since the paragraph said “the Thai naval forces”, it did refer to and, hence, defamed the Royal Thai Navy. He said specifically that the navy was not prosecuting Phuketwan for the story headline.
He said if it would be a joint patrol by various units of the Thai government, the wording should have been “maritime forces”. He explained this to the court as the defence lawyers were trying to establish that the words “the Thai naval forces” did not refer to the Royal Thai Navy as an institution, but could probably be some individual local forces.
However, it was established to the court that the allegedly defamatory paragraph was written by Reuters. “It is taken from Reuters word by word,” Pallop said in answering a cross-examination question from a defence lawyer.
Pallop said the navy has also filed charges against Reuters for its original story; but since it was an international news agency, the matter is now in the hand of the Office of Attorney General. He said he was unaware of the current status of the charges against Reuters.
Pallop admitted that in other parts of the story published in Phuketwan, the navy was praised for helping the Rohingya boatpeople occasionally, and that Phuketwan has published another story on the navy’s denial of taking any profit from the Rohingya smuggling.
He also said the navy still maintained a good relationship with Phuketwan.
After Pallop, the prosecutors produced three other police officers as witnesses, who were an information and communication technology officer from Bangkok and two local officers in Phuket.
Police Lieutenant Jarunyu Kruawangmon, the ICT officer, told the court that he was able to establish that the information used in registering the Phuketwan website belonged to Morison and that the IP address used in entering it was located in the United States.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Sanich Nukong, the main police investigator of the case in Phuket, told the court that after the navy filed the charges, he did not check the accuracy of the Thai translation of the paragraph in question against the original English language. Neither did he investigate into any computer traffic data to find out who put the Phuketwan story into the computer system.
Apart from SEAPA, UNESCO, Reporters Without Borders, International Commission of Jurists and Australian embassy in Bangkok sent representatives to observe this trial, whereby a negative judgment for Phuketwan could further intimidate local media already under tough restrictions from the military junta.
The prosecutors have already exhausted their witnesses. Morison and Chutima testify on Wednesday to defend themselves. Five other witnesses, including Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara, a national human rights commissioner, are scheduled to testify for the defendants on Thursday.
Morison and Chutima, if being found guilty, could each face up to five years of imprisonment. The navy does not seek any financial damages from them.