Australian journalist Alan Morison, 67, and his Thai colleague Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian, 34, have been acquitted on defamation and computer crimes charges that could have sent them to a Thai prison for up to seven years.
After spending six months preparing for their July 14-16 trial, and another six weeks waiting for the verdict, the pair was understandably relieved to be set free, but Morison maintains that global news wire service Reuters, whose reprinted words were at the heart of their ordeal, has hardly covered itself in glory.
On July 17, 2013, Phuketwan.com, an independent news site run by Morison, a former senior editor at The Age and Sun-Herald, reprinted a paragraph from a story written by global news wire Reuters.
The paragraph included the following:
”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.”
The paragraph did not name or identify the Royal Thai Navy, and in fact the Reuters article and the Phuketwan article also referred to “Thai naval security forces”, “militia commanders” and “police” as well as the Royal Thai Navy. The Royal Thai Navy accused Morison and Sidasathian of defamation.
“The relevant paragraph was quite vague,” said Ian Yarwood, a Perth solicitor who has followed the case.
“An uncontested fact in the trial was that Thailand has many ‘naval forces’ that have naval vessels,” Yarwood said. “In addition, Reuters went on to use other terms in a later story of 5 December 2013, in which it referred to [Thai] ‘Marine Police’.
“Nevertheless, an unknown translator in the Royal Thai Navy erroneously translated ‘Thai naval forces’ as the proper noun ‘Royal Thai Navy’. Remarkably, the navy and prosecutor failed to have an expert translator attend court. The prosecutor merely relied up the assertions of Royal Thai Navy Captain Pallop Komalodaka, even though the captain conceded in court that he could not speak English properly,” said Yarwood.
“The final of four prosecution witness was Thai Police Lt Colonel Sanich Nukong, who was clearly very embarrassed during cross-examination. He conceded that he could not understand English and simply accepted the navy’s translation even though the journalists had explained to him during the investigation that there was an obvious error in translation. The police officer further conceded that he had not obtained an independent expert translation of the term ‘Thai naval forces’. He essentially acted as a rubber stamp and laid the charges.”
“At the end of the prosecution evidence a defence barrister in Australia would probably have made a submission of ‘no case to answer’, but that did not happen in the Phuket court. On the final two days of the trial the defence witnesses gave their evidence, which was uncontested and therefore should be accepted by the court.”
“Throughout the trial the gallery was packed with lawyers, journalists, UNESCO staff, an [International Court of Justice] representative, an [International Federation of Journalists] independent trial observer, staff of various NGOs, human rights defenders, three Australian embassy staff and other assorted supporters and friends of the accused.”
The article at the heart of the case was one of a series on the trafficking of the Rohingya people. Assisting Reuters in the story was Sidasathian, a Thai journalist at Phuketwan who has been at the forefront of reporting on an issues that would not explode into the regional consciousness fully until almost two years later, in May 2015. Reuters went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for helping expose the human cargo that was so lucrative it was turning drug smugglers into people traffickers.
Sidasathian and Morison had been covering the issue since late 2008, when 54 Burmese were found dead in a refrigerated truck en route from the Thai province of Ranong to the Malaysian border, where it was discovered in May this year that there were large human trafficking camps.
“This got us interested,” Morison told Crikey last night.
“Our lives changed forever by those trips that turned us from copy editors behind desks on Phuket into investigative reporters,” the pair wrote at the time.
“We then interviewed a vice admiral who alerted us to the problem of the Rohingyas. The navy turned us down on a request to go with them to see what was going on, but they sent us back photos of Rohingya on the beach. We were then very interested.”
The pair then began to investigate and run stories on the issue in Phuketwan.
“When Reuters engaged Chutima as a fixer in 2013 they got contacts that had been built up over three years in a matter of days, but she was never given proper credit for this,” Morison said
As Reuters collected its baubles (winning a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the issue), the contrast with the two Phuket-based journalists and their website could not more stark, as they were hit with criminal charges in December 2013.
Morison told Crikey he had been extremely disappointed by Reuters’ behaviour throughout the ordeal. “Any sense of support of collegiality with other journalists, especially those that have helped them, doesn’t seem to be part of Reuters’ corporate cultures.”
Crikey understands that Reuters journalists were told by management not to discuss the case.
Many in the Thai government, including the Prime Minister, said that if the journalists had simply apologised, the charges would have disappeared. This would have applied to the defamation case brought by the navy, but Yarwood said that but once the Computer Crimes Act charges were laid they could not be dropped by the navy.
“An apology — which would have been false — could have simply triggered a conviction of the more serious CCA charges, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail,” he said.
The Thai court found the that the Computer Crimes Act could not be used to prosecute people for defamation, and rights groups immediately called for the act to be revoked.
Yarwood outlined the legal reasons the trial was controversial.
“Firstly, it took place only a few short months after the discovery of several mass graves of Rohingya refugees on each side of the Thai/Malaysia border.”
“Secondly, it is doubtful that a branch of the armed services is able to sue for defamation even in Thailand.”
“Thirdly, the relevant paragraph belonged to Reuters, which is a reliable source of accurate news. Phuketwan had merely quoted a famous news service.”
“Fourth, section 14(1) the Computer Crimes Act was drafted with a view to cover ‘damage’ by computer viruses and hacking but not ‘damage’ to reputation. Unfortunately, eager prosecutors have submitted incorrectly that s 14(1) had an excessively broad application.”
“Fifth, the original author of the paragraph Reuters was not charged, and the navy captain gave no explanation in court as to why only the smaller target was pursued.”