(New York) – Thai authorities should not bring criminal defamation and computer crimes charges against two journalists who reported on abuses by the Thai navy against ethnic Rohingya migrants, Human Rights Watch said today. Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian of the Phuketwan online newspaper were told to report to the Phuket provincial public prosecution office on March 10, 2014, where they might be formally charged.
The Thai navy, which filed the case, 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 “boat people” by navy personnel.
“The Thai navy’s heavy handed response to news reports of mistreatment of migrants shows a startling disregard for rights abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra should order prosecutors to end the case against the Phuketwan journalists and instead investigate serious abuses against Rohingya boat people.”
Possible charges include criminal defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act. The navy has cited a paragraph in Phuketwan on July 17, 2013, citing an investigative report by Reuters alleging some navy officials “work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya,” and that they earn about 2,000 baht (US$62) per Rohingya “for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye.”
If convicted for criminal defamation, Morison and Sidasathian could be imprisoned for up to two years. Under the Computer Crimes Act, each faces a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 baht ($3,100). Journalists from the Reuters news agency could face similar charges connected to the original article cited in the Phuketwan article, but they currently do not face charges.
Morison told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on March 5, 2014, that the prosecutor informed him that if he and Sidasathian were charged on March 10 they would likely be brought to court later that day to be arraigned. Morison and Sidasathian have publicly stated they that will serve a period of pretrial detention, rather than immediately post bail, to protest what they consider unjust legal actions.
Human Rights Watch, and an increasing number of international legal experts, believe that criminal defamation laws should be abolished because criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and infringe on free expression. Criminal defamation laws are open to easy abuse, and frequently result in harsh consequences, including imprisonment. As the repeal of criminal defamation laws in an increasing number of countries shows, such laws are not necessary for the purpose of protecting reputations since civil defamation remedies are sufficient.
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, an influential set of principles issued in 1996 by international legal experts, state that “No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting … public officials, … unless the criticism or insult was intended and likely to incite imminent violence.”
“Prosecutors should be investigating the poor treatment of Rohingya boat people instead of targeting journalists,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Yingluck and her government should not allow the navy to play ‘shoot the messenger’ and curtail media reporting on government abuses.”