The price of freedom

Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison

Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison

Sitting alongside a convicted murderer in an overcrowded Thai prison would seem an unlikely and altogether harrowing scenario for most people.

Australian journalist Alan Morison cuts an unassuming figure as he casually reflects on this experience, an anxious and ‘interesting’ five-hour wait for bail in a holding cell beneath Phuket court in 2013.

For Mr Morison this is a mere side-note surrounding the ongoing legal action brought against him and Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian.

The pair is charged with defaming the Thai Royal Navy in an article they wrote alleging navy involvement with human trafficking. Based in the region for the past 10 years, Mr Morison has run independent news publication Phuketwan since 2008.

He previously worked as a journalist with Fairfax, News Ltd and CNN.

Along with general news, the publication has also taken up sustained coverage of various social justice issues eschewed by many local media organisations.

The article in question detailed ongoing issues related to human trafficking in South East Asia. In particular the plight of the Rohingya people, an oppressed ethnic minority from Myanmar, who often flee persecution only to fall into the hands of human traffickers.

Many are subsequently sold into slave labour on Thai fishing boats with notoriously poor and often violent conditions.  According to the UNHCR, close to 63,000 people undertook ‘irregular maritime journeys’ through the South-East Asia region in 2014.

Reports consistently note serious criminal activity and human rights abuses along the route, most often related to human trafficking.

“In some cases people are kidnapped and put to work on trawlers,” Mr Morison said.

“Many spend up to two years on a boat in international waters before they get a chance to break free.”

In Myanmar the Rohingya are denied citizenship and are oppressed to the extent that the United Nations has previously identified the minority Muslim group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

“In mid-2012 Muslim villages were torched and there were about two-hundred deaths in the first outbreak of violence,” Mr Morison said.

“Since then further oppression with the tacit support of the Burmese government has pushed more and more Rohingya into the sea.

“They’ve always been impoverished and they’ve always caught boats in search of a better life, but only in the last couple of years has there been an increasing exodus.”

The Phuketwan article raised in the defamation charges included an excerpt from a Reuters report detailing the plight of the Rohingya. It is this very section of the Phuketwan article, a brief quote from the Reuters article, which is specifically identified in the charges.

The republished excerpt included allegations of navy officials being complicit in the trafficking of vulnerable minorities in the region. To date Reuters has not faced legal action.
Mr Morison views the legal action as an obvious reaction against Phuketwan highlighting issues of embarrassment for some in the upper echelons of the Thai Royal Navy.

“We’ve been covering the Rohingya saga since 2008,” Mr Morison said.

“The Rohingya is a story that people are interested in – we do it because it’s not widely known. I think that is what riled the navy rather than any sense they had been insulted.

“Let’s face it, it’s a big organisation. To have an organisation that has upwards of 70,000 members suing a very small organisation is pretty silly.

“We had to laugh when that paragraph was part of a series by Reuters journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize – obviously it was very good journalism.”

As well as issues relating to human trafficking and refugees, the defamation case touches on significant global issues concerning freedom of the press and the control of information.

“We certainly see that in being targeted in this particular case we’re at the centre of quite hectic debates about freedom of the media and the future of Rohingya,” Mr Morison said.

“We’re in a fascinating era where information is much more easily available but governments are also much more aware of the need to control it.

“Governments are using laws to ensure secrecy to limit access to information and to crunch people who dare to speak out – a reporter or a NGO or anyone.”

Mr Morison cites a case involving British migrant-worker advocate Andy Hall as another example involving the misuse of legislation to silence opposition.

“A pineapple processor has taken exception to a report Andy worked on for a Finnish NGO and sued him – and him alone,” he said.

“In our experience the criminal defamation laws and the Computer Crimes Act in Thailand are being misused.

“It was intended to address hacking and people involved with serious online criminal activity. However, it’s being used to sensor investigative journalism and NGOs’ reports on slave labour and abuses within the factory system in Thailand.”

Following a family physician’s correspondence with Thai authorities outlining the declining health of his father, Mr Morison was recently allowed to travel back to Australia briefly.  Discussing the possibility of a lengthy court battle and potential long prison sentence, Mr Morison is adamant they will return to face the charges as a matter of principle.

Once back in Thailand he will be closely monitored.
“As soon as I get back from Australia I’ll have to hand over my passport,” he said.

“Theoretically I could just stay here but it’s not something I’d consider.

“We’ve said that they will have to kill us to stop us.

“We are prepared for the long-haul. If necessary, in a worst-case scenario, we could lose the court case and then continue on through the appeals court, then the Supreme Court. So it could take years to resolve and we’re aware of that.”

Mr Morison has noted the support from many groups locally and internationally, including the Uniting Church.

“We’ve been astonished,” Mr Morison said.

“After we were charged people came from everywhere to support us.

“Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalism and a whole host of other groups have expressed support and criticised the action of the Royal Thai Navy.”

Mr Morison and Ms Sidasathian’s situation has been widely reported by international media and is beginning to receive further attention.

On returning to Thailand, Mr Morison is confident of being exonerated in the trial scheduled for July. He is determined to continue reporting on human rights issues in the region.

“I don’t think they have a case they can win in any fair and just court,” he said.

“The Thai government is more aware than ever for the need to stop trafficking and its international obligations are being made plain by the US state department and many others.

“We hope that in the next 12 months there will be greater signs of a willingness to enforce the international standards that they should enforce.

“We’ll just have to see what happens.”

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