Navy should back down

Navy should back down

Yesterday evening, the news media and citizens in Melbourne heard first hand about the lawsuit the Royal Thai Navy has launched against two Phuket journalists. Chutima Sidasathian spoke to the Australians, and took their questions. It won't be known immediately what this hub of Australian journalism thinks. But it is probably safe to say that news of the defamation lawsuit against Chutima and her Australian colleague Alan Morison will not impress their colleagues down under.

The navy claims in its criminal suit that a Phuketwan report late last year harmed the reputation of the force. Senior officers in Phuket have cited a specific part of the Phuketwan story. It referred to allegations that security forces have mistreated Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. But the navy has not actually brought charges against the news team that reported such allegations. Chutima and Morison passed on reports from others.

Legally, the navy has the right to bring the charges. Repeating a defamatory statement is equal under the law with making it in the first place. But the Phuketwan case raises questions about just why the navy has gone after the Phuketwan news team so very strongly. It is one of several wrong signals that the Phuket naval officers have given in the case of the Rohingya allegations. Bringing the full power of state prosecution against a small website is the navy's legal right, but it is also the right of observers to question whether it is a giant case of overkill.

Another problem which the navy has created has come to be known as the Barbra Streisand Effect by internet users. The US singer once launched a suit against Google, demanding that its map service blank out satellite photos of her house. By doing this, she drew thousands of times more attention to the photos than if she had remained silent. Similarly, the navy has brought greatly increased attention to its treatment of Rohingya refugees with its lawsuit. Whatever the outcome of the defamation suit, millions of people who were blissfully unaware of any problem will now make closer inquiries.

But there is another important court — the court of public opinion. The story of mistreatment of the Rohingya that was partly quoted by Phuketwan originated in the Bangkok office of the Reuters news agency. Already well respected for many decades of reporting around the world, Reuters earlier this month was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the Rohingya navy story.

The navy's initial decision to respond to the story with a lawsuit, against the lesser source, presents an image to the court of opinion. It is the image that the story is true, no matter what the navy says in its Criminal Court filing. Global public opinion generally thinks the navy is trying to get a type of revenge against the media, instead of engaging in an exchange of views that would prove it never has mistreated boat people.

Right now, Chutima and Morison face the reality of a lengthy court process. A guilty verdict will bring state punishment, which includes fines and up to seven years in prison. But in the court of public opinion, both the navy and Thailand face punishment, which could start today from the media in Australia.

The navy can help by asking the court to withdraw charges. It can open talks with Phuketwan and all the media about its operations in the South. It can appear, in short, as a party that feels it has been libelled in the press, but is willing to talk rather than prosecute to settle its disagreement.

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