A United Nations human rights body has joined an international chorus of criticism and urged the government to drop charges against two Phuket online journalists being sued by the Royal Thai Navy for defamation in connection with a Rohingya trafficking story.
As the trial started in the Phuket provincial court Tuesday, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement calling for all charges to be dropped because “international human rights standards uphold the right of journalists and others to disseminate information that is of legitimate public interest”.
Phuketwan editor Alan Morison and journalist Chutima Sidasathien are being sued under the defamation law and Computer Crimes Act.
The charges stem from one paragraph, copied from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters story which examined Thailand's role in the trafficking of Rohingya migrants, published in 2013.
The OHCHR's regional office in Bangkok said Phuketwan, a news website, has been a leading source of information on the plight of Rohingya asylum seekers since 2008.
"Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest," it said.
It also said that in April 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression also raised concern over increasing instances of arrests and prosecutions under the Computer Crimes Act and called for an end to the criminalisation of dissenting opinions.
Mr Morison and Ms Chutima remained upbeat at the start of the three-day trial. Ms Chutima told the Bangkok Post she was relieved that Capt Pallop Komalotok, acting as plaintiff for the Royal Thai Navy, told the court the navy was not upset with the headline of the July 17, 2013 article which read, "Thai Military Profiting from Trade in Boatpeople, Says Special Report".
It was more upset with a paragraph in the article.
Phuketwan's defence is the offending paragraph quoted from Reuters that "Thai naval forces" benefited from Rohingya smuggling did not mean the Royal Thai Navy.
Phanom Butakhieo, one of the seven defence lawyers, argued the prosecutor didn't explain clearly what damages occurred to the plaintiff.
Three police officers also testified to the court Tuesday, while the defendants are due to testify Wednesday.
A spokesman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said consular officials in Thailand have provided assistance to Mr Morison since he was charged in 2013.
This includes representations to the Thai government, meetings and correspondence between Mr Morison and Australian officials, and liaison with Thai courts and legal representatives.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop raised the case with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn in Bangkok on May 8, and the Australian government has made over 30 representations to Thai authorities on Mr Morison's behalf.