Phuket – The two defendants in an online defamation case in this southern island city told the court on Wednesday that they had no intention to defame the Royal Thai Navy in their story about smuggling of minority Rohingya ethnic groups out of Myanmar.
Alan Morison, 67, and Chutima Sidasathian, 33, the two journalists at Phuketwan.com, a small English-language news website, said separately that they have published a navy’s statement in denying its involvement in any human trafficking, and have actually written many other stories praising the navy for its contribution to social and environmental works in the south.
“We had good relations with the navy before the case,” Morison told the court. “And we still maintain a good relationship.”
Meanwhile, the prosecutors of this case told the court before the start of Wednesday’s proceedings that they would not want to cross-examine the two defendants and, hence, were absent from the entire hearing. The absence of prosecutors in court trials is not uncommon.
Four witnesses were produced by the prosecutors on Tuesday and the plaintiff has since exhausted its witnesses. Morison and Chutima took the witness stand on Wednesday in beginning the hearing of defendants’ witnesses.
The lawsuit was brought up against 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,” which was mainly excerpts from an award-winning investigative report by Reuters.
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.”
Navy Captain Pallop Komalodaka, deputy director of intelligence division, Third Naval Area Command, whose jurisdiction covers Phuket, told the court on Tuesday that the navy was not suing the news website for the headline or any other part of the story.
It has been established clearly to the court that the paragraph claimed to be defamatory was a direct quote from Reuters.
Morison said before he sent the story out for publishing, Chutima had tried to call some navy officers for comments about the Reuters story, but could not get a hold on any of them after several phone calls. Nor did the two receive any return call from any naval officer.
He said three days after the publication of the paragraph in question, Phuketwan wrote another story based on a statement by the navy in denying any of its involvement in human trafficking.
In a separate testimony, Chutima said she has learnt that Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha had written a letter in asking General Prawit Wongsuwan, a deputy premier and the defence minister, to help mediating for the navy’s withdrawal of the case.
Chutima said there had been several rounds of negotiations with the navy, which stood firm on its demand for an unambiguous apology from Phuketwan.
She said an apology would mean that the news website admitted of publishing false information.
“We have no intention to hurt anyone,” said Chutima, who has been investigating the Rohingya issue for years and is doing her doctorate dissertation at a university in southern Thailand on the issue. “We just hope that the problem would be solved.”
Morison and Chutima said the smuggling and trading of Rohingya is a public interest issue, of which the public should be aware and the Thai government should examine into it.
Five other witnesses, including Dr. Niran Pitakwatchara, a national human rights commissioner, and Abdul Karlam, a Rohingya leader, are scheduled to testify for the defendants on Thursday.
Morison and Chutima, if found guilty, could each face up to five years of imprisonment under the Computer Crime Act for publishing and disseminating false information that hurt the navy’s reputation. The navy does not seek any financial damages from them.