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Australian journalist fears rough justice in Thai defamation case

AN Australian journalist working in Thailand fears he will not get a fair trial on criminal defamation charges because of a damaging statement issued by the country’s Justice Ministry in refusing his application for legal aid.

Words by Krati Garg
 

Alan Morison, who is accused of having defamed the Thai Navy in a report published on the local website that he edits, said that in rejecting his application the Justice Ministry had declared him guilty ahead of his trial in July.

The charges relate to a story, published last year and co-authored by Chutima Sidasathian, that included a paragraph from a Reuters news agency report about trafficking and persecution of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

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“We now have an indication directly from the Justice Ministry that we stand little chance of winning this case – even though we are not the authors of the paragraph and the ‘evidence’ has been completely distorted,” Morison was quoted as saying in a report published on the website, Phuketwan

Morison and Khun Chutima (pictured) had applied for a grant of $100,000 to help fund their bail. The assistance is normally offered to defendants who cannot raise the sum, with the Ministry’s Rights and Liberties Protection Department presiding over applications.

The journalists said they had been interviewed twice by ministry officials. According to Morison, the committee could have simply refused the application but instead had chosen to issue a statement that could jeopardise his and Khun Chutima’s chances of getting a fair trial on the charges, which include alleged computer crimes and carry maximum jail sentences of seven years and 14 years.

“[We] get no chance to justify or challenge this statement,” said Morison. The statement was issued in July this year, but reached Phuketwan only a few days ago as it was originally posted to Sidasathian’s village address.

According to a translation posted on Phuketwan, the ministry said of the offending news report: “The information . . . is false and untrue. The journalists must be correct and recheck their information before publishing the story to make sure there is no danger to others. The reputation of the Royal Thai Navy was damaged and made people look down on the Navy. On the evidence we have, we believe Morison and Khun Chutima did the wrong thing.”

“We now have an indication directly from the Justice Ministry that we stand little chance of winning this case – even though we are not the authors of the paragraph and the ‘evidence’ has been completely distorted.” — Australian journalist Alan Morison, editor of Phuketwan 

Khun Chutima and Morison, a former senior editor at The Age, spent several hours in a prison cell earlier this year, before their initial bail was raised by a local advocacy group. 

Morison, whose Australian passport has been confiscated by Thai officials, claimed the Australian embassy had been “very low key and lacking in assertiveness” in working to help him.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade official told The Citizen that consular officials were continuing to provide assistance in accordance with the Consular Services Charter and were monitoring developments closely.

“The Australian Government is unable to intervene in the legal proceedings of another country and the matter of (Morison’s) passport is one he and his lawyers need to resolve with the Thai Government,” said Allen Samuel, DFAT’s media liaison officer.

But Morison responded that “principles of media freedom have escaped the Australian government at home and abroad”, citing the example of British human rights activist Andy Hall, who faced similar charges and whose passport was held by Thai officials until intervention by the British Government.

 “The information . . . is false and untrue. The journalists must be correct and recheck their information before publishing the story to make sure there is no danger to others. The reputation of the Royal Thai Navy was damaged and made people look down on the Navy. On the evidence we have, we believe Morison and Khun Chutima did the wrong thing.” — Thai Justice Ministry

Next year’s trial is set for hearing in the Phuket Provincial Court. If convicted, Morison and Khun Chutima could take their case to an appeals court.

Morison’s four sisters have requested the Federal Government ramp up its efforts to reclaim their brother’s passport in an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

The charging of the Phuketwan journalists has been condemned worldwide by various media organisations including Reuters, which has so far avoided charges despite being the source of the offending material.

The Myanmar Times reported back in May that the Reuters journalist who filed the report, and later won a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the refugee issue, would be summoned “to acknowledge defamation charges”. The report quoted Lieutenant Somkid On-Jan from the southern island of Phuket where the complaint was filed by the Thai Navy. He warned that should the reporter not appear “arrest warrants will be issued”. 

However, there has been no conformation that the warrants were issued.

Officials at the Thai embassy in Canberra have refused to comment ahead of the July court case.

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