Ms Chutima Sidasathian and her Australian colleague, Mr Alan Morison, have been charged with criminal defamation of the Thai Navy over an article they published on their independent Phuketwan website, based in Phuket. They are due to appear in court on Monday.
The content they have been charged over is a paragraph quoting a Reuters report on the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Reuters reporting on the issue went on to win a Pulitzer.
Chutima told a recent meeting of the Melbourne Press Club that she had acted as a journalistic “fixer” for Reuters, and that the news agency had used her contacts to assist in breaking the story, but that since the charges had been laid Reuters had not spoken out in her defense.
She said: “I am disappointed that Reuters not only did not take responsibility for the content of their report but even failed to show moral support. They treat their sources like lepers.”
However, the Head of Corporate Affairs at Reuters, David Crudwell, told The Citizen that Chutima did not act as a Reuter’s journalist or stringer, and her contribution to the overall story was limited to arranging appointments to gather news.
He said that the tone and content of the story in the Phuketwan paper were different to the one published in Reuters.
Chutima has shown The Citizen tax invoices she gave to Reuters for her work, and emails between herself and a Reuters reporter, Jason Szep, who was the co-author of the award-winning stories.
The emails show that Szep contacted Morison to enquire about an “issue related to Rohingya”. Morison introduced Reuters to Chutima who shared her sources and information on Rohingya Muslims with Szep.
The emails show that Szep appreciated her help and requested she send an invoice. Chutima was paid two amounts of 15000 Baht and 6000 Baht by Reuters – a total of about $700.
Speaking to The Citizen, Morison dismissed Reuter’s claims that the Phuketwan and Reuter’s stories differed.
“It is a matter of time before Reuters will be charged for their story,” he said.
If convicted Morison and Chutima face up to five years jail for computer crime and two years for defamation.
Morison is an Australian journalist and has been a senior editor at The Age. The Phuketwan website has won a number of human rights awards including ‘Best Investigative Report on Human Rights’ from the South China Morning Post in 2009.
Rohingya is a Muslim ethnic group, members of which have been discriminated against in Burma for years. Their plight has been raised by the United Nations Human Right Commission.
The charging of Morison and Chutima has been condemned by the United Nations, the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand and local Thai newspapers.
Reuters told The Citizen: “Although Reuters was not involved in the case against Phuketwan it wholeheartedly supports a free press and the rights of journalists across the world to publish news and information without fear or hindrance.”
Morison said that he was pleased that the Reuter’s story won a Pulitzer Prize and the cause of Rohingya Muslims is getting much more attention than what the Phuketwan paper could have generated, but that he found Reuter’s conduct in not standing by Chutima reprehensible.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: “The Australian Government takes issue with measures anywhere that restrict freedom of the media. The concerns raised by Mr Morison and Human Rights Organizations in Thailand over freedom of expression has been noted and the Australian Embassy in Bangkok has provided consular assistance to Mr Morison following his arrest and will continue to do so.”
The Thai Embassy in Canberra declined to comment.
Morison and Chutima say that the charges will not deter Phuketwan from publishing more stories about Rohingya Muslims.