Australian journalist Alan Morison (R) and Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian (L) arrive at court in Phuket, Thailand, September 1, 2015.
Australian journalist Alan Morison (R) and Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian (L) arrive at court in Phuket, Thailand, September 1, 2015.

A court in Thailand has found an Australian journalist and his Thai colleague not guilty of defamation over a report linking the Thai navy to a human trafficking ring.

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian each had faced up to seven years in prison for the 2013 article in the Phuketwan English-language news website.

Speaking outside the court after the verdict was delivered, Morison told VOA he was "pleased" to have been exonerated, and added it was "good news for Thailand and for media freedom."

"It's a very, very satisfying judgment, particularly for Khun Chutima, who for all my problems, she's been the one who has been intimidated as a reporter around Phuket during the case," he said. "It's a wonderful relief."

The article quoted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters news story claiming Thai navy officials took money to either assist or ignore the trafficking of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

The court on the island of Phuket cleared the journalists of defamation charges. It also said they did not violate the Computer Crime Act, which rights groups have said is too vague and restrictive.

The ruling is a victory for independent and free media in Thailand, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.

"Our view is that this is a vindication of the resistance of these two brave journalists to these charges by the Thai navy. This is a case that never should have been filed in the first place," Robertson told VOA.

The suit was filed by the Thai Navy, which, along with other Thai government entities, has long been accused of involvement in human trafficking.

"The navy decided to press full bore for criminal charges, essentially in our view, using the criminal defamation statutes and the Computer Crime Act in a way that was detrimental to freedom of expression and freedom of media," Robertson said.

The issue of human trafficking came to the forefront earlier this year after a regional crackdown on a vast people-smuggling ring, which included the discovery of dead bodies in abandoned jungle camps along the Thai-Malaysia border.

Thai state prosecutors have indicted 72 people, including government officials and a senior military officer, for involvement in the human trafficking ring.

Many rights groups have urged the Thai government to go further, saying it likely that such a massive operation would not have been possible without the involvement of more officials. 

Ron Corben contributed to this report.