At one point, the relationship between Reuters and the English-language Thai news site Phuketwan was pretty good, Phuketwan Editor Alan Morison said in a phone call with Poynter. Reuters had hired Phuketwan reporter Chutima Sidasathian twice to help with what became a series of reports on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group from Myanmar. The reports showed, among other things, that Thai authorities delivered Rohingya refugees to human traffickers; the series eventually won a Pulitzer.
Phuketwan, which averages about 9,000 readers a day, has reported on the Rohingya for seven years, Morison said, so “it was natural for Reuters to call me and get a briefing from me” when Stuart Grudgings and Jason Szep began reporting the series. Phuketwan even quoted a 41-word paragraph from a Reuters special report on the Rohingya (it’s not a Reuters client but wanted to point readers to Reuters’ reporting, Morison said). And not long after that, things went south.
In December Phuket police summoned Morison and Chutima in response to a claim by the Royal Thai Navy that the Reuters material violated the country’s Computer Crimes Act and defamed the Navy. They were later charged. (While one of Reuters’ reports said Thai naval forces can earn money for handing Rohingya over to human traffickers, the material Phuketwan quoted did not mention the navy. The Thai translation the navy provided to the court, however, mentioned the navy three times, Morison said.)
Morison and Chutima “spent time in the cells beneath the Phuket provincial court as part of our bail application,” Morison said; they each face up to seven years in prison and a fine. As a director of Phuketwan as well as a coauthor on the story, Morison faces up to 14 years.
Last week police in Phuket summoned Grudgings and Szep to answer charges of defamation. Reuters told Poynter it intended to “defend our story, along with our right to publish, vigorously.”
Which leaves Morison wondering: What about us?
Morison thinks Reuters should help with Phuketwan’s defense, but he said when he told the news organization about their arrest, “that was virtually our last communication.”
“Basically, they left the little guys to take the rap,” he said. Phuketwan has had “no conversation at all with anyone from Reuters of consequence since December, and we had a good laugh when the Pulitzer Prize was announced because it seemed to add an even more bizarre touch to a very difficult situation for us.” Morison also said he doesn’t begrudge Reuters the Pulitzer: “We think it’s great for the Rohingya issue, and the journalism involved was first-class.”
Reached for comment, Reuters Head of Corporate Affairs David Crundwell said the company had “nothing to add to the full, and detailed, statements that we’ve already provided.” When asked if the statements in question were what Reuters told Poynter previously, Crundwell said, “Correct.”
Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act vaguely defines crimes “relating to national security.” It’s one of the laws that has “created widespread anxiety and stifled freedom of expression in the media,” Freedom House wrote in a report last year.
Thai authorities have used the laws “to target activists, scholars, students, journalists, foreign authors, and politicians who are critical of the government, exacerbating self-censorship,” the report says. “Defendants can face decades in prison for multiple counts, and it is often only through media and activist pressure that any leniency is shown.”
“Here there is no innocent until proven guilty,” said Morison, who is Australian. In Thailand, a defamation charge “carries a much heavier significance than in the U.S. or in Australia or in Britain.” Morison believes the charges are part of a “comprehensive effort to close down Phuketwan because of our coverage of the Rohingya over seven years” and noted that “at least four Thai media outlets carried the same paragraph in Thai, translated from the English, but they haven’t been prosecuted.”
Some people have already helped with the publication’s defense, Morison said. “We’ve had a rush of lawyers who want to help us because these laws are so iniquitous,” he said. “We actually have lawyers holding up their hands to help us. The problem is other people will be sued in Thailand if this case succeeds.” He and Chutima are scheduled to appear before Thailand’s Law Reform Commission on May 22 (there, they hope to “explain how these laws can be misused,” Morison said) and in court on May 26.
The wheels of Thai justice grind exceedingly slowly: Morison said they could get 30 minutes in court on May 26 and not have to reappear until much later in the year. There are three levels of courts in Thailand, he said, and they intend to appeal any rounds they lose. “We’ve been treated as criminals once and spent time in the cells with people in shackles from the local jail. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat.” But, he says, “My colleague and I are willing to go to jail if necessary.”
As bleak as the situation is, “I guess it has the positive of making people more aware of the Rohingya issue and also making people more aware of the lack of media freedom in Thailand,” he said.
The Thai military declared martial law Tuesday and stormed TV newsrooms, ordering them to “stop broadcasting to prevent ‘distorted’ reports,” Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday. Morison said the declaration “hasn’t changed a lot on the ground” with regards to Phuketwan’s case.
“We would suggest that the Royal Thai Navy would come to its senses and stop this prosecution,” Morison said. “We would also suggest that Reuters should help us materially and accept their moral responsibility to defend their paragraph.”