Bangkok: Australian journalist Alan Morison has declared he is prepared to go to jail to defend media freedom in Thailand where defamation laws are being increasingly used to silence criticism.
‘‘This is a clear issue of freedom of media and the military exceeding its role in using an onerous law unjustly,’’ says Morison, 66, who edits and publishes Phuketwan, a small but popular news website on the resort island of Phuket.
A defamation lawsuit launched by Thailand’s navy against Mr Morison and his colleague Chutima Sidasathian on Christmas Eve is one of about 1600 defamation cases that were initiated in the south-east Asian country in 2013, many of them by powerful interests.
Court records show that of the defamation cases that proceed to trial in Thailand an average of 96 per cent lead to convictions, one of the world’s highest rates for the crime.
Mr Morison and Ms Chutima could face a maximum five years’ jail and fines if convicted under the Computer Crimes Act.
If convicted on criminal defamation charges they could be jailed for up to two years.
The navy’s unprecedented action has prompted criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups, non-government organisations and media outlets and unions both in Thailand and other countries.
The charges relate to a story published in Phuketwan in July 2013 that quoted a Reuters news agency investigation alleging that some members of the Thai military were involved in networks smuggling Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar.
No action has yet been filed against Reuters, a multinational company, although the navy has said charges against two of its reporters are expected to be laid shortly.
Phuketwan has closely followed the plight of the Rohingya who have been described by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted people.
Mr Morison says he and Ms Chutima have discussed the possibility of going to jail on the principle of media freedom in what would be a David-and-Goliath fight against the navy which has 70,000 active personnel.
‘‘These are trumped up charges. There is an important principle at stake,’’ he says.
‘‘The Rohingya have no spokesperson, no leader, but through Phuketwan’s ongoing coverage the torment of these people continues to be revealed.’’
Mr Morison, a former senior Age editor, sold his apartment in Melbourne and set-up Phuketwan, which provides local and foreign news coverage for Phuket where an average 20,000 Australians holiday each month.
If Mr Morison is jailed he would be one of the first editors to be incarcerated in the country since the Bangkok Post’s Michael Gorman was jailed for three months over defamation proceedings in the early 1980s.
‘‘The Thai navy’s lawsuit is a reckless attempt to curtail journalists’ reporting on alleged human trafficking by its officers,’’ says Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
‘‘Unless the government withdraws the case, its impact will be felt far beyond those reporting on abuses against the Rohingya – and could have a choking effect on all investigative reporting in Thailand,’’ Mr Adams says.
David Streckfuss, an American academic who is an expert on Thai laws, told a recent forum at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand that use of defamation laws ‘‘have become a kind of way of controlling political discourse in Thailand’’.
Andrew Drummond, a British investigative reporter in Thailand, said up to 30 foreigners have fled the country following threats of defamation that would involve years of litigation in the courts and thousands of dollars in bail payments.
Many of them had been swindled by criminals making the threats, he said.
Mr Morison and Ms Chutima, a respected Thai journalist, have formally denied the charges that could take years to be heard in Thai courts.