Australian journalist Alan Morison and his colleague Chutima Sidasathian.Bangkok: An Australian journalist taking a stand against attempts to silence the media in Thailand has spent five hours in a small prison cell crowded with 90 prisoners, including a man who admitted killing his girlfriend.
”It wasn’t hell but it wasn’t far off,” said Alan Morison, the editor of an independent news website on Phuket Island, who insists he is prepared to spend more time in jail to defend media freedoms in the south-east Asian country where defamation laws are increasingly being used to silence criticism.
Mr Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian were freed from cells at a Phuket court late on Thursday after supporters raised the equivalent of $3314 bail on charges of criminal defamation and computer crimes, for which the pair could be jailed for up to seven years.
The charges relate to a story published on Mr Morison’s Phuketwan website last year that included one paragraph from a Reuters news agency report on the violent persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Reuters, which on Monday won a Pulitzer prize for its coverage of the same story, has refused to defend Mr Morison and Ms Chutima, who was hired for several days by the company to work on its Rohingya coverage.
Shortly before the pair was taken to cells pending legal procedures on Thursday, a Reuters spokeswoman issued a statement saying ”we oppose the use of criminal laws to sanction the press – large or small, local or international – for publication on matters of serious public interest, like the Rohingya stories.”
Mr Morison, 66, a former senior Age editor, and Ms Chutima, refused to raise the bail money themselves on principle and were remanded to appear in court again on May 26.
Mr Morison said while in the small stifling hot cell he spent most of the time talking with a 52-year-old Norway man accused of killing his Thai girlfriend and hiding her body in a bin for three years.
He said the man admitted the killing to him. ”He said it was an accident … he had quite a story to tell,” Mr Morison said. ”He is hoping to avoid a murder conviction.”
The Thai navy’s unprecedented charging of Mr Morison and Ms Chutima has been condemned by the United Nations and rights and journalist groups, both in Thailand and overseas.
Reuters, one of the world’s largest news agencies, has not been charged over its award-winning series but the company’s spokeswoman said ”to our understanding” a complaint against Reuters by the Thai navy is under review.
The spokeswoman said the Reuters story was ”fair, balanced and contextualised”.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the trial of the journalists was ”unjustified and a dark stain on Thailand’s record for respecting media freedom”.
”The Thai navy should have debated these journalists publicly if they had concerns with the story rather than insisting on their prosecution under the draconian Computer Crimes Act and criminal statutes,” he said. ”It is now time for Thailand’s leaders to step in and other prosecutors to drop this case, and end this blatant violation of media freedoms once and for all.”
Benjamin Ismail, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, said taking Phuketwan to court was absurd. ”If they want to dispute the Reuters special report, which has just won a Pulitzer prize, it can publicly give its version of events and demand right of reply,” he said.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand said in a statement that while Reuters, a large media organisation, was being feted for its reporting, ”two poorly funded local journalists are being prosecuted for their reporting of the same issue, including material from Reuters”.
”These two journalists have done more than most to report accurately from Thailand the plight of the Rohingya,” the club said in a statement.
”The professional membership of the FCCT shares the view of the UN Human Rights Commissioner and human rights groups that such a prosecution serves only to stifle media freedom on an issue of profound importance to the rights of a persecuted people,” the club said. ”The legal action also seriously damages the image of Thailand and claims it may make in supporting freedom of speech and fair comment.”