BANGKOK — Two journalists in Thailand are facing criminal charges for publishing a story about Thai security forces' alleged involvement in trafficking Rohingya Muslims from Burma. The story was originally produced by the Reuters news agency, which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for its coverage of the Rohingya issue.
Thai reporter Chutima Sidasathian and Australian editor Alan Morison face charges brought by the Royal Thai Navy for criminal defamation and breaches of Thailand's tough Computer Crimes Act.
The two have long reported on the plight of the Rohingya for the online Phuketwan news service. Morison, a former newspaper editor in Melbourne, Australia, established the website more than five years ago.
Morison said the charges are questionable and appear targeted at Chutima who had assisted Reuters journalists and other reporters on the story.
"I have no doubt about it. I am sure the manner in which [Chutima] has helped open up the Rohingya story to the international organizations is one of the reasons for this prosecution. She has been the person who has, I guess, singularly opened up the Rohingya story to international media attention," he said.
Last July, Chutima and Morison published a news story that quoted material from Reuters alleging how "some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit" amid the surge of Muslim Rohingya fleeing Burma.
Outbreaks of ethnic conflict in Burma in recent years have led to thousands of Rohingya, an ethnic minority who are denied citizenship in Burma, to flee the country, often by boat.
This week Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles detailing the Rohingyas’ struggle to leave Burma and find refuge abroad.
The report alleged Thai naval forces and police cooperate with human traffickers to send Rohingya to primitive jungle camps until their families can pay a ransom.
Morison called the case against he and his colleague "spurious" and "deeply flawed." While praising Reuters on its award, he said the news agency had failed to provide support to Phuketwan in the case.
The London-based Reuters has made no comment on the charges against the two journalists. The Royal Thai Navy has not taken action against Reuters.
Morison blames a mistranslation into Thai of the English language report published in Phuketwan, and said the Royal Thai Navy's legal action is a bid to close the website down because of its coverage of the Rohingya and human trafficking over several years.
"It is all about one paragraph from Reuters that has been mistranslated by the Royal Thai Navy - it is a paragraph in which the Royal Thai Navy was not mentioned in the original English version, and yet in the Thai version that was presented to police, the Royal Thai Navy is mentioned three times," Morison noted. "This is indicative of a set up I would say. And we have no doubt that the Royal Thai Navy is out to shut down Phuketwan."
Both reporters have received widespread support, including the International Commission of Jurists and U.N. rights groups and Thailand's own Human Rights commission.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said the Royal Thai navy appears to be seeking to pressure Phuketwan.
"This is a little bit about Thai navy payback where Phuketwan has been a thorn in the side of the Navy for many years in the handling of the Rohingya and the Navy is determined to put them through the ringer and sadly the Thai government - the prosecutor and also the political leadership appears to have washed their hands of this despite the fact that it's going to leave a very dark stain on Thailand's record for respecting media freedom," he said.
Both Morison and Chutima face five years in prison for computer crimes charges, and two years in prison for defamation charges.
On the 2014 Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index Thailand is ranked 130 on a list of 180 countries.