Human Rights Watch says duo among few who still regularly report on pervasive human trafficking of Muslim Rohingya in Thailand.
BANGKOK – Human Rights Watch has called on Thai authorities to drop all charges against two journalists who wrote a 2013 report suggesting the navy was involved in the trafficking of Muslim Rohingya through the country’s south.
“The Thai authorities should direct the navy to unconditionally drop its baseless charges against the two journalists,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement late Friday.
“This effort to silence media criticism has backfired against the navy, which should act swiftly to cut its losses.”
Australian national Alan Morison and Thai national Chutima Sidasathian were charged in April last year with defamation and violation of the Crime computer act.
If convicted, they could be imprisoned for seven years.
In an article published on Phuketwan news website in July 2013, the respective editor and journalist referred to a Reuters investigative report, and wrote that some Thai navy officials “work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya.”
On Saturday, Morison proclaimed his innocence to The Anadolu Agency.
“Some Thai officials encouraged us to issue an expression of deep regret [about the published article], but we don’t want to apologize because we haven’t done anything different than any other media covering the human trafficking issue,” he told AA.
“Why would we do it? We are innocent. What they are asking us is to confess.”
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group from Western Myanmar who have been fleeing the country in droves due to bloody clashes with Buddhist Rakhine – another ethnic group in the region – and the fact that the government refuses to recognize Rohingya as Myanmar nationals.
It instead wants them to refer to themselves as Bengali – a term suggesting they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
To escape such abuses, the Rohingya usually pay smugglers to take them on rickety boats towards the Malaysian coast, but many of them are intercepted in southern Thailand where they are kept in hidden camps until their families pay a ransom for their release.
The Thai navy was incensed by the Phuketwan report and filed legal action against the two journalists.
In his statement, Adams lauded the two writers for their work in highlighting abuses suffered by Rohingya.
“The Phuketwan journalists are among the few who are still regularly reporting on the pervasive human trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand,” Adams said.
“Thailand’s efforts to show progress in tackling human trafficking are seriously damaged by this shoot-the-messenger action against journalists exposing abuses,” he added.
Morison told AA that he thought the case was the result of the actions “of one or two navy officers who acted on bad advice.”
“We face long jail terms because of that approach, instead of going through the democratic process of talking to us”, he said.
He did however express “great respect” for the Thai navy, “especially for their work in rescuing tourists.”
On the back of a United States downgrade last year, the Thai junta has said it has made the fight against human trafficking a top priority.
Thailand was placed at the lowest level on its people trafficking report in June.
On March 31, the military-appointed government sent a report to the U.S. State department detailing its achievements over the last six months in the fight against human trafficking.
The content has not been made public.