PHUKET — A provincial court in Phuket acquitted two journalists on trial for a news report about human trafficking in the south of Thailand.
Chutima Sidasathian and her Australian colleague, Alan Morison, this morning were found not guilty of both a criminal defamation charge brought by the Royal Thai Navy and a count of violating the Computer Crime Act for publishing a July 2013 report about human trafficking that included a paragraph implicating unnamed navy personnel.
“I am happy that the court has done its duty perfectly,” Chutima said, applauding the court for applying the letter and spirit of the law. “It benefits the freedom of expression of Thai media, foreign media and the people. … I also believe that this case will have a positive outcome on other ongoing lawsuits on libel and Computer Crime Act charges.”
The court ruled that the text published in Phuketwan was not libelous because it was done to serve a compelling public interest and not a personal attack.
Charges under Thailand’s criminal defamation statute are notoriously difficult to defend against, as truth is not an absolute defense. Truth can only be used as a defense in matters deemed to serve a compelling public interest.
Chutima said the court recognized that the offending passage in the report was excerpted from Reuters, which the court acknowledged as a reputable international wire service.
As for the computer crimes charge, the court ruled it was a misapplication of the law, saying the report was not false, did not affect national security and did not defame the navy’s reputation, as charged.
Chutima said a representative from the Royal Thai Navy, which brought the suit against her and Morison, showed up just after the verdict was read.
“He congratulated me," she said. "I think this verdict benefits everyone.”
The navy and prosecutors can file an appeal within 30 days. Chutima said she hoped the navy would drop the matter, saying its lawsuit has already adversely affected its reputation.
The Phuketwan report that led to the charges excerpted one paragraph from a Reuters report that Chutimas had contributed to as a fixer:
“A Reuters investigation, based on interviews with people smugglers and more than two dozen survivors of boat voyages, reveals how some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya,'' it read.
The navy never filed charges against the Phuketwan journalists five months after the report was published, but never went after Reuters. The London-based news service this morning hailed the court’s decision.
“We are pleased at the court's verdict in the case today as Reuters wholeheartedly supports the principles of a free press, and the imperative of journalists across the world to publish independent and reliable news,” the statement read.
The charges had been roundly condemned by media organizations within and without Thailand, as well as human rights organizations. Last month the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights joined the call for charges to be dropped charges to be dropped because "international human rights standards uphold the right of journalists and others.”
Chutima and Morison had held fast and refused to apologize for the report – a face-saving measure that can have a favorable outcome in such defamation cases in Thailand – saying it would be an admission of wrongdoing.
Amnesty International called Phuketwan’s acquittal a “small step in the right direction.”
“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 let alone face the possibility of years in jail,” Josef Benedict, a campaign director for the group, said in a statement.
The verdict comes in a year which has seen the harrowing extent of trafficking of humans and forced servitude in Thailand exposed for the world to see.
Prodded into action by the possibility of costly sanctions, the Thai state took action earlier this year against what has long been an open secret: trafficking operations involving the kidnapping, ransom and enslavement of migrants and refugees, some of whom have ended up at sea for years on Thai fishing vessels. In May security forces discovered slaver camps near the border with Malaysia, where several mass graves were discovered containing more than 100 bodies.
Clarification: Story updated to reflect the defendents were acquitted by the court.
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Chutima's name as Chutimas.
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