Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison. 

© Alan Morison

(New York) – Thai authorities should drop criminal proceedings against two journalists for reporting on trafficking of ethnic Rohingya “boat people,” Human Rights Watch said today. Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, the editor and correspondent of the news website Phuketwan, were charged one year ago, on April 17, 2014, with criminal defamation and the Computer Crimes Act based on a complaint filed by the Thai navy.

If convicted on the criminal defamation charges, Morison and Sidasathian could be imprisoned for up to two years. Under the Computer Crime Act, they face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 baht (US$3,125). They are scheduled to go to trial on July 14-16.

“The Thai authorities should direct the navy to unconditionally drop its baseless charges against the two journalists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This effort to silence media criticism has backfired against the navy, which should act swiftly to cut its losses.”

The charges centered on a paragraph in the Phuketwan online newspaper on July 17, 2013, that cited a Reuters investigative report alleging that some navy officials “work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya,” and that they earn about 2,000 baht (US$63) per Rohingya “for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye.” The report was part of a Reuters investigative series on the plight of the Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority in Burma, that won a Pulitzer Prize.

Human Rights Watch believes that criminal defamation laws should be abolished, as criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and infringe on free expression. Criminal defamation laws are open to easy abuse, resulting in very harsh consequences, including imprisonment. As repeal of criminal defamation laws in an increasing number of countries shows, such laws are not necessary for the purpose of protecting reputations

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to impart information. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the covenant, has expressed its concern at the misuse of defamation laws to criminalize freedom of expression and has said that such laws should never be used when expression is without malice and in the public interest.

“The Phuketwan journalists are among the few who are still regularly reporting on the pervasive human trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand,” Adams said. “Thailand’s efforts to show progress in tackling human trafficking are seriously damaged by this shoot-the-messenger action against journalists exposing abuses.”