BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's navy has filed criminal defamation charges against a news website that published stories alleging Thai military involvement in the trafficking of Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya boatpeople, an editor said.
The English-language Phuketwan site in July posted a story carrying excerpts from a report by the Reuters news agency alleging that members of the Thai military were involved in trafficking captured Rohingya illegal immigrants.
Alan Morison, Phuketwan's editor, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he had been summoned along with one of Thai reporters on Wednesday to a police station in Phuket to formally acknowledge the charges.
The lawsuit filed by a captain on behalf of the Thai navy charges that the website violated Thailand's 2007 Computer Crime Act, which bars the circulation of material deemed detrimental to national security or that causes panic.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on the Thai government to withdraw the case, saying it could have "a choking effect on all investigative reporting in Thailand."
"The Thai navy's lawsuit is a reckless attempt to curtail journalists' reporting on alleged human trafficking by its officers," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director said in a statement issued Friday. "The Thai navy should understand that in a democratic society, media scrutiny of the security forces must be possible."
Phuketwan has for several years taken a leading role in reporting on the plight of minority Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar fleeing persecution and poverty to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The journey is a perilous one, and they are often forced back out to sea or detained if they make landfall.
The police charge sheet, a copy of which Phuketwan provided to The AP, alleges that Morison, the Thai reporter and the company owning the website published "false" information defaming the navy.
"We were disappointed that the Royal Thai Navy decided to use a bad law against journalists who are just doing their jobs," Morison said. "It would have been so easy to telephone us or to hold a media conference to set the record straight."
"This just makes us keener to know who is mistreating the Rohingya in the secret camps along Thailand's southern border, and how they reach there by sea," he added.
If found guilty, Morison and the other accused could face up to five years in jail and a fine of 100,000 baht ($3,100).
Reuters, whose stories have included denials of abuse by the Thai navy and government, said it had not been served with a lawsuit. The agency published another story earlier this month alleging further abuses.
"Our story was fair and balanced and Reuters has not been accused of criminal libel," said Barb Burg, global head of communications for the news agency.