BANGKOK – The two journalists facing a defamation lawsuit filed by the Royal Thai Navy said they were hopeful after the first day of their trial concluded on Tuesday.
Naval officers sued Thai reporter Chutima Sidasathian and her Australian colleague, Alan Morison, over an article the pair published in July 2013 on the local news website Phuketwan. The article carried excerpts from a Reuters report that accused "Thai naval forces" of accepting bribes in exchange for protecting human traffickers who smuggled Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar into southern Thailand.
The journalists are facing up to seven years in prison for charges of libel and violating Thailand’s Computer Crime Act.
In the lawsuit, the navy said the two Phuket-based journalists defamed the navy by publishing the following paragraph from the Reuters report:
"'The Thai naval forces usually earn about 2000 baht per Rohingya for spotting a boat or turning a blind eye, said the smuggler, who works in the southern Thai region of Phang Nga [north of Phuket] and deals directly with the navy and police."
Chutima said her lawyer cross-examined a high-ranking navy officer in court today, and pointed out that the paragraph did not explicitly refer to the Thai Navy.
According to Chutima, the navy officer admitted that the phrase "naval forces" could be used to describe other security agencies that use maritime vessels, such as the Internal Security Operation Command or other local bodies.
"I have hope that we will be acquitted," Chutima told Khaosod English after the court hearing concluded. "It was clear that the paragraph does not directly refer to the Royal Thai Navy."
Chutima and Morison are scheduled to return to court tomorrow and take the stand as defendants. They will call witnesses to testify in their defense on 16 July.
One of the witnesses due to testify in court is a former lawmaker who helped draft Computer Crime Act, which outlaws entering any information into a computer system that is false, affects national security, causes panic, or destroys the "good morality of the people."
"The witness will tell the court that the purpose of the Computer Crime Act is not to be used as a libel law," Chutima explained. "We want to show that the law has been abused to silence people. Today we are not only defending ourselves as the defendants in the court. We are doing it on behalf of all media agencies and all people in Thailand. It's an awful law. Whenever someone is displeased by someone else, they use Computer Crime Act alongside libel law against their opponents."
Passed by an interim parliament under the rule of a military government in 2007, the Computer Crime Act’s broad and vague language has been criticized by rights activists for restricting free speech. The law is often used in tandem with Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which punishes criticizing the monarchy with up to 15 years in prison.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, a number of human rights organizations have petitioned junta chairman and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power from an elected government last May, to ask the navy to drop the charges against Morison and Chutima.
In a statement, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, Phil Robertson, described the lawsuit as an effort to intimidate journalists.
"The real message of this trial to Thailand's journalists is report at your own risk because big brother in Bangkok is watching," Robertson said. "But fortunately, when they went after Alan and Chutima, the Navy and the ruling military junta came up against two courageous journalists who are not afraid to fight for their principles. They deserve the international community's unstinting support. They certainly have Human Rights Watch's support."
The verdict is expected to be handed down within the next 30 days.