BANGKOK— An excerpt from a Pulitzer Prize report posted online by a website in Thailand has led to a criminal court case against two journalists in the country. They are accused of defaming the Thai navy for its alleged involvement in trafficking of some refugees from Burma.
An Australian editor based in Thailand and one of his local reporters appeared in a provincial court Thursday and were released on bail.
The navy filed charges against them five months ago after they posted a paragraph from a Reuters news story which alleged that members of the Thai military profited from trafficking of Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers from Burma, also known as Myanmar.
The two journalists who were charged work for an online English-language news site on the Thai southern resort island of Phuket.
Alan Morison is the editor of the Phuketwan web site. He said his independent website likely was targeted because it repeatedly has reported about how the Rohingya refugees have been treated by Thai authorities. He said it is not unique for officials here, however, to try to intimidate journalists and others in this way.
"The law is used in all kinds of bad ways against investigative journalists and academics and even migrant activists in Thailand already. And we're just the most noticeable case, I guess, because it's the military," said Morison.
After being granted bail, Morison was ordered by the court not to leave Thailand.
The other journalist charged in the case is Chutima Sidasathian. She expressed relief about being granted bail after being held in the court's detention cell for five hours. Chutima said she and her editor will fight the case.
Chutima also helped Reuters with its series on the plight of the refugees. The Reuters' articles were this week awarded a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
Reuters says the same Thai navy officer who brought the case against the two journalists has also filed a criminal complaint against the news agency, which is believed to be under review by Thai authorities.
Morison and Chutima face up to seven years in prison and a fine of about $3,000 if convicted of both defamation and offenses under the Computer Crimes Act.
Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, is calling on Thailand's leaders to intervene and stop the case. It terms the prosecution an application of draconian laws and a "blatant violation of media freedoms."
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand issued a statement Thursday saying it shares the view of the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner that such a prosecution "serves only to stifle media freedom on an issue of profound importance to the rights of persecuted people." The journalists' organization added that the legal action also damages Thailand's image and claims the country may make in support of freedom of speech and fair comment.
The provincial court has set a May 26 date for the first hearing in the case.