- POSTED: 20 Dec 2013 22:34
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Thailand's navy has launched a criminal defamation lawsuit against a Phuket-based news website, its editor said on Friday, over a report alleging military involvement in networks smuggling Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar.
BANGKOK: Thailand's navy has launched a criminal defamation lawsuit against a Phuket-based news website, its editor said on Friday, over a report alleging military involvement in networks smuggling Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar.
The complaint relates to an article published in the Phuketwan website in July, quoting an investigation by the Reuters news agency, which claimed some members of the military were involved in trafficking rings that have developed in the region.
Editor Alan Morison said he and his colleague Chutima Sidasathian were on Wednesday presented with the charges of "bringing the navy into disrepute" as well as an offence under the Computer Crimes Act, which carries a more severe penalty.
"We really don't know the motives or precisely how the defamation action came about," Morison told AFP. "It clearly has huge ramifications for news agencies and people who publish stories from news agencies."
Human Rights Watch on Friday warned that the lawsuit threatened media freedom in Thailand.
"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," said Asia director Brad Adams in a statement.
The Rohingya, considered by the United Nations to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, have long made the perilous journey from Myanmar by boat.
But that exodus accelerated after communal clashes last year in western Rakhine State, with thousands of Rohingya -- including women and children -- since fleeing the former military-ruled country.
Many head for Malaysia or Indonesia and Thai authorities have faced censure for pushing boats back out to sea.
Rights groups have also criticised the detention of hundreds of Rohingya in overcrowded facilities while Thailand waits for a "third country" to offer to take them.
Morison said a "huge industry" had evolved over the last five years to smuggle Rohingya, with some being held by traffickers in "secret camps in the jungle" where they are "abused and mistreated" until they pay for their onward passage.
He said the lawsuit would not stop the Phuketwan's acclaimed coverage of the issue.
"We feel as though they need someone telling this horrible story," he said, adding that he hoped the website would be able to reach an agreement with the navy.
"We are confident that common sense will prevail, but (we are) preparing for the worst just in case," he added.
The two journalists face a maximum jail term of five years or a fine of up to 100,000 baht ($3,000).
Reuters said it had not received any criminal complaint.
"Our story was fair and balanced and Reuters has not been accused of criminal libel," a spokeswoman told AFP.