An Australian editor and his Thai reporter colleague were cleared of criminal defamation charges Tuesday over a report on Thai naval officers’ alleged involvement in trafficking of refugees from Myanmar. Alan Morison, editor of independent news website Phuketwan, and reporter Chutima Sidasathian were facing up to seven years in jail for the report.
Human rights groups, which had widely condemned the case, welcomed the acquittal Tuesday, but said that the case should never have come up. The online report, published in Phuketwan, alleged that military forces accepted money to assist the trafficking of Burmese Rohingya refugees by sea.
"This is a fantastic day for us, to be free of the weight of this charge," Morison said outside the court, on the island of Phuket, according to the Associated Press (AP). "I think it's an important result for Thai media and for the media in general."
Phuketwan had reportedly republished an excerpt from an extensive story by the Reuters news agency in July 2013. Reuters, which received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting on the Rohingya issue, has not been charged in the case.
"The acquittal of these two journalists is a positive decision, but the fact is that they should never have had to stand trial in the first place," regional representative for Amnesty International Josef Benedict said according to AP. "Thai authorities have again shown their disregard for freedom of expression by pursuing this case."
Thai authorities have been accused by human rights activists and foreign governments of conspiring with the trafficking industry, but the military and government officials have denied the allegations. The country is known to follow harsh defamation and cyber-crime laws. The two journalists were charged with defamation and violating the 2007 Computer Crimes Act.
“This whole episode shows a fundamental lack of understanding among Thai government and military officials about what a free press is really about and the role it plays in democratic society,” Phil Robertson, deputy director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said about the case, ahead of the verdict, according to the Guardian.
Last year, the U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand to the lowest tier on its Trafficking in Persons Report 2014, which annually ranks countries on the basis of their anti-trafficking efforts.
“There continued to be reports that corrupt Thai civilian and military officials profited from the smuggling of Rohingya asylum seekers from Burma and Bangladesh (who transit through Thailand in order to reach Malaysia or Indonesia) and were complicit in their sale into forced labor on fishing vessels,” the report said.