BANGKOK - Two journalists subject to a defamation complaint with regard to a story they wrote that alleged that some Royal Thai Navy officers may be involved in the trafficking of Rohingya Muslims have asked the human rights commission for help in a case that could see them jailed for seven years
Alan Morison, an Australian national who edits a Southern Thai news English-language website named Phuketwan, and local reporter Chutima Sidasathien met with Thailand's Human rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara in Bangkok on Friday to discuss charges that could be levied against them under the country's 2007 Computer Crime Act.
Prior to the meeting, Sidasathien told the Bangkok Post that the act - which bans the circulation of material that can cause panic or is seen as detrimental to national security - "is threatening the survival of the media" in the country and also threatening its professional development.
The controversial article was published online on July 17 last year. It quoted paragraphs from a report by Reuters news agency titled “Thai authorities implicated in Rohingya Muslim smuggling network.”
Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority who arrive in Thailand after fleeing western Myanmar, frequently by boat via the Andaman Sea.
The agency's article, which it said was based on an in-depth investigation that took several weeks, detailed allegations saying “some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya.” According to the report, smugglers in Thailand routinely beat Rohingya so as to pressure their relatives to send money and those whose families do not pay up are then sold to farms or plantations as indentured labor, or to work as slaves on Thai fishing boats.
The Phuketwan report quoted a few paragraphs detailing the alleged involvement of the Thai navy and police in the trafficking, even specifying the amount of money they are allegedly paid “per Rohingya,” but whereas the Reuters article included denials by the Thai navy and government of any abuse whatsoever, the Phuketwan report did not.
Thailand's navy filed criminal defamation charges against the website last year, but it has not filed a complaint against the Reuters Bangkok office.
In an article posted Thursday on the Phuketwan website, Morison said: “Sadly, this misguided legal action by the Royal Thai Navy is likely to damage Thailand’s reputation as a democracy. Navies in democracies don’t sue the media.”
Prosecutors will consider April 17 whether to file charges against the two journalists. If charged, they could face five to seven years in jail, a fine of 100,000 Baht (2,240 euros), or both.
Rohingya have been arriving in Rakhine state, in Myanmar's west, from Eastern Bengal and Bangladesh for generations. The Myanmar government refuses to grant them citizenship, saying they are all illegal immigrants.
Tensions between them and local Buddhists, known as Arakanese, have always been high, but they boiled over in 2012, when several large clashes provoked the death of around 200 people and left 140,000 homeless.
Since then, Rohingya have been confined to grim camps in Rakhine State. Many of them pay large amounts of money to traffickers to flee the country on cramped boats in the hope of finding work in Malaysia or Australia, only to arrive in Southern Thailand where they become prey to other human traffickers and corrupt local officials.
Human Rights Watch has said that the navy "should cease its efforts to silence the journalists and instead permit civilian authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into alleged trafficking and other serious mistreatment of Rohingya 'boatpeople' by navy personnel."
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