Australian journalist Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian exposed the plight of the Rohingya, so why are they now on trial and facing seven years in a Thai jail for reporting the truth?
Airdate: 
Tuesday, August 25, 2015 - 21:30

Alan thought he was winding down to retirement when he moved to Phuket in 2002, but as soon as he became aware of the Rohingya’s plight he had to act.

Ironically it was the Thai Navy, which now wants Alan and Chutima convicted, that first tipped them off to the Rohyinga crisis.

So concerned was the Navy about the influx of Rohingya, they even sent them photos of the refugees detained in long rows under armed guard.

Then as Alan and Chutima pursued the story, they uncovered the notorious policy of pushing refugee boats back into international waters without proper power.

“It pushed me, ‘Hey this is a very good story’,” Chutima tells Amos Roberts. “We have to do something, we have to help them.”

They wrote the story for their tourism news website, Phuketwan, and it was soon picked up by major media organisations. The plight of the Rohyinga fleeing persecution in Myanmar soon became global news.

Years later, a Pulitzer-prize winning article from Reuters delivered the disturbing news that some in the Thai military forces were profiting from people smugglers.

Alan and Chutima included a 41 word paragraph from the Reuters investigation in one of their stories, and it’s that paragraph that has seen them on trial on charges of computer crimes and defaming the Royal Thai Navy. Reuters has not been charged.

“Is there a free press in Thailand?” Alan is asked. “No, that’s the problem,” he replies.

Amos spends day and night with them as they prepare for court and then he attends the trial.

He records the toll it takes on both Alan and Chutima as they contemplate the prospect of seven years in jail, just for doing their job as journalists.

“It would mean death for me at my age,” Alan says. See the full story at the top of the page.

Update

The verdict in their case was issued on Tuesday 1st September, acquitting them of all charges.

Journalists acquitted over Rohingya reporting in Thailand
Australian journalist Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian have been acquitted on all counts over their reporting on the Rohingya in Thailand.

More

Comment: Fighting defamation in Thailand
Journalists Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian are are facing seven years in a Thai jail for an online news story. How did it come to this?
Unwelcome Everywhere: The Rohingya Story
Shunned by their home Myanmar, and facing an increasingly hostile reception elsewhere, Dateline hears the personal stories of the outcast Rohingya Muslims.
Factbox: Who are the Rohingya?
Rohingya is the name given to Sunni Muslims originating from the Arakan (now Rakhine) region of Myanmar. The name Rohingya dates back to around the 7th century, and was originally a term used to refer to people with dark skin.

Reuters' Response

Dateline put the following questions to Reuters regarding this story:

1. Is it correct that Reuters has not offered support to Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian? If not, why not?

2. Is it correct that Sidasathian assisted Reuters in the investigation for which Reuters was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2014?

3. Has Reuters made any public statement defending the Reuters original report and condemning the fact that journalists are being persecuted for reprinting an extract from that report?

4. Are you aware of any complaint made by the Royal Thai Navy about Reuters’s original publication of the article?

David Crundwell, Senior Vice-President of Corporate Affairs at Thomson Reuters, responded with this statement:

“Reuters wholeheartedly supports a free press and the imperative of journalists across the world to publish independent and reliable news, however the case against Phuketwan arose out of aspects of our story being excerpted by Phuketwan from our original and comprehensive story. 

As part of writing our story, we asked Chutima to assist in arranging appointments for our journalists as part of our news gathering. She did not act as a Reuters journalist or stringer, and her contribution to the story was limited to arranging these appointments. We appreciate the role that local journalists like Chutima often play in assisting international news organizations like ourselves in accessing information.

Reuters strongly objects to the use of criminal laws anywhere in the world to attempt to punish journalists for the important and valuable work that they do.

On the charges against Reuters, we are aware that a captain in the Royal Thai Navy filed a criminal complaint against Reuters and two Reuters journalists, Stuart Grudgings and Jason Szep, arising out of the Rohingya coverage, and that the complaint alleges violations of the Computer Crimes Act. Based on our understanding, the complaint is under review by the authorities, but we have not been charged. We hope that the Captain and the Navy will reconsider the lawsuit against Reuters in light of the Thai officials’ subsequent acknowledgement of the seriousness of the problem, their efforts to combat trafficking, and Reuters’ contribution to the authorities having released 900 trafficking refugees from trafficking camps in Thailand. 

We stand by the fairness and accuracy of our Rohingya coverage, support the principles of a free press everywhere in the world – and the rights of journalists to go about their jobs without fear or hindrance in reporting the truth.”

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Credits

  • Editor: Simon Phegan

Transcript

Meeting the victims of terrible human rights abuses doesn't have to be depressing, especially if you turn up with two journalists who've probably done more than anyone else to expose their plight.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN, JOURNALIST: Hello. How are you? Are you good?

Among the students at this school for migrant children are 25 Rohingya - a Muslim ethnic group persecuted in Burma. It's Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian's compassion for the Rohingya that could end up landing them in jail.

ALAN MORISON, JOURNALIST: I think we were just keen to see the Rohingya treated properly. They have nothing. They're stateless - they're hated by their neighbours. I mean, you have to feel something.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Booboo - come to visit you.

To the kids here, Chutima is "Booboo" - or "sister".

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Okay.

CHILD: 1, 2, 3 - what? 4.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Again.

In just four days' time Alan and Chutima will face court charged with defaming the Royal Thai Navy in a story about the trafficking of the Rohingya.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: A-B-C-D... I put myself, my heart, to get involved on this issue because, first, the issue happens in Thailand - it's my country. And I would like to helping my country as well. Bye-bye!

I'll spend a day and night with Alan and Chutima as they struggle to come to grips with the trial and the possibility of seven years behind bars.

ALAN MORISON: There are very few jails in the world that are as bad as Thai jails. It would mean death for me at my age.

It all started out very differently, when this veteran Australian reporter and editor moved to Phuket in 2002.

ALAN MORISON: I guess I was winding down.

REPORTER: You were heading towards retirement?

ALAN MORISON: Yeah, for sure.

Well, it didn't happen. At 67, Alan hasn't slowed down a bit.

ALAN MORISON: Does it hurt?

MAN: It hurts.

In 2008 he started an online news site called Phuketwan - or 'Sweet Phuket' - every day reporting on tourism.

ALAN MORISON: The elderly European tourists all want the sun lounges back - so does Phuket want to sacrifice its elderly European tourists or not?

Soon after Phuketwan began, Alan hired Chutima.

REPORTER: What do you think drew him and Chutima together, as colleagues and as partners?

JOSHUA MORISON, ALAN’S SON: I think - ah - I think it's probably a love of the news, you know? and being at the forefront of a story.

Just a few months later, Alan stumbled upon the biggest scoop of his career. The first clue came after an interview with a Navy Vice Admiral.

ALAN MORISON: He said, "What do you know about Rohingya?" And I said, "Huh, Rohingya?". Our interest was sparked, really, in a serious way, by the Royal Thai Navy.

Right now the navy wants them convicted for their Rohingya stories. Back then it was so worried about Rohingya turning up on boats it even sent them photos.

ALAN MORISON: And the photos were astonishing. The photos showed rows of near-naked men spread out on beaches with people standing over them with guns. We were incredulous.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: It pushed me. "Hey, this is a very good story, we have to do something, we have to helping them."

When Alan and Chutima went looking for more evidence, they uncovered the Thai Army's secret policy.

NEWS REPORT: Phuketwan has confirmed that the boat people are being released in international waters with paddles as their only power.

REPORTER: So this is the notorious 'pushback' policy?

ALAN MORISON: That's right.

Their appalling discovery became the biggest story of the in the region.

CNN NEWS: Incredibly, this shows the Thai Army towing a boatload of some 190 refugees far out to sea.

The pushback policy was stopped thanks to Phuketwan, but the persecution in Burma got worse - as did the trafficking.

ALAN MORISON: We realised it was becoming more serious when some of our contact started telling us that, "Hey, this is becoming a big business. There are drug dealers we know who have given up dealing in drugs to deal in people."

CNN NEWS: A grisly find in Thailand - deep in the jungle authorities say they've discovered a mass grave at a suspected camp for human trafficking.

Thailand pretended it didn't have a serious trafficking problem, until April of this year when the deadly trade grabbed the world's attention.

ALJAZEERA NEWS: Now this seems to confirm what anti-human trafficking campaigners have been saying all along.

While these images of secret trafficking camps and mass graves of Rohingya were shocking, they weren't news to Alan and Chutima.

ALAN MORISON: Over the years a lot of the articles that we've written about this topic have just been ignored. Fortunately this time the number of graves was too big to ignore.

A belated government crackdown implicated the army and led to than 100 arrests.

NEWS REPORT: Thailand orders the arrest of a 3-star general suspected of human trafficking.

This checkpoint was set up last year by local community fed up with the trafficking scourge.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Hello. You can check the car.

It stops all vehicles travelling towards the Malaysian border. But traffickers - or "brokers" as they're also known - haven't given up on their lucrative trade and I'm about to find out how determined they are.

HAMID (Translation): It's the broker.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Really? This is the broker. See he know this guy is the broker.

REPORTER: Show me?

ALAN MORISON: Got the picture, eh?

Chutima's just been sent this photo of a Rohingya translator and suspected trafficker.

ALAN MORISON: If he's lucky and he gets three women to go over the fence tonight...

Earlier today he was at a nearby shelter for Rohingya women and children with a visiting NGO.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Not easy to get the translator, a good translator, who not get involved with the human trafficking.

As night falls we head to the shelter. It's rumoured that three of the women are planning to escape tonight and meet the trafficker. Chutima's asked our Rohingya translator, Hamid, to give the women a stern warning.

HAMID (Translation): Didn't you see how bodies were found in graves? They are all Rohingya. Male and female bodies were dug up, including children. What good is it if you end up dead in this corrupt foreign country?

All of these women were trafficked - many were beaten and raped. I can't believe they'd risk that happening again.

ALAN MORISON: As good as their life is here, these women have husbands in Malaysia. So there's a pull factor at work.

HAMID (Translation): You will definitely be resettled one day.

Hamid has a separate message - a very blunt one - for the young, unmarried women.

HAMID (Translation): If you leave now, you will be offered beer one after another, get naked and be forced to sleep with up to 15 guys a day.

As we leave, I can only hope the message has sunk in.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: I'm making a Thai dessert. I try to keep my life as normal as I can. To be grumpy every day, panic every day - too much.

But soon there's good reason for panic - not the looming court case - but worrying news from the shelter we visited last night.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN (Translation): Boss, two people have escaped. Can you contact the police to help look for them? Oh, I call the policeman first.

Despite all of Chutima's efforts, it seems some of the women have been lured away by the trafficker.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN (Translation): Hello, commander. I'm calling to tell you that two Rohingya have escaped. Oy! I get very angry about this thing because I know their future if they out.

But suddenly there's good news.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN (Translation): Really? Okay, run, run, run.

A search party from the shelter found five women and two teenage girls in a nearby rubber plantation. Unfortunately the broker can't be caught.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: I would love to see the feeling like a happy ending, thing like that, but most of the time it's not quite that.

Chutima and Alan have been praying for a happy ending ever since the phone call that came in December 2013.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: I get a phone call from the police and he asking me, "Where is your office?" And he said, "Okay, l will be there were 10-15 minutes."

Soon they were fingerprinted, charged with criminal defamation and breaching the Computer Crimes Act. The Royal Thai Navy had complained about this article published five months earlier, specifically, a single paragraph, taken directly from a Reuters report.

NEWS REPORT: A Reuters investigation reveals how some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya.

A 41-word paragraph, taken directly from an investigation that saw two Reuters' journalists win the Pulitzer Prize. No charges have been filed against Reuters for the story, but Alan and Chutima face a possible seven years in jail.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Boss.

ALAN MORISON: Oh, thanks. Wow, looks pretty good, eh?

Chutima actually helped Reuters research the story.

ALAN MORISON: Mmmm. That's beautiful.

There's been no help forthcoming from Reuters - not even a statement supporting Alan and Chutima.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: So to me, like, they just protect their brand, but they didn't protect the people who working for them. It's very shameful to me, I feel very disappointed.

Reuters responded to Dateline's questions about this.

REUTERS: Reuters strongly objects to the use of criminal laws anywhere in the world to attempt to punish journalists for the important and valuable work that they do.

ALAN MORISON: And ah - Hawthorne plays a little bit later today without dad watching?

Alan's on the phone to his sister in Mount Gambier.

ALAN MORISON: It's the big game of the round.

It's been a tough couple of weeks. Along with the charges against them, Alan and Chutima have also had to deal with family tragedy.

ALAN MORISON: And I look down on the list of numbers I've got here and of course it's got "dad" and then numbers, so. Yeah, so I'm constantly reminded I can't actually call dad.
We had a week a couple of weeks' ago when both our fathers died in the space of a couple of days, and I guess at that point we realised just how much of a toll it had taken. I should have spent more time at home with my father in Australia, but I couldn't.

REPORTER: Because of this case?

ALAN MORISON: Because of the case. So we can forgive and forget a lot, but we can't forget or forgive that week.

Alan and Chutima's lawyers have flown in from Bangkok to help them prepare. As a non-Thai speaker, Alan needs to have everything translated. He has to deal with a foreign language as well as a foreign legal system.

ALAN MORISON: Do we get asked to plead on Day 1? Do we plead to the charge?

ANDY: Yes. Day 1, as soon as the case starts, they'll ask you to stand up and ask you to plead.

His lawyers jokingly tell him he can always choose to plead guilty.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: You know you can change – yeah!

ALAN MORISON: Oh great, I'm so pleased to hear that.

Chutima and Alan rehearse for the questions they'll be asked in court. The entire case could hinge on what sounds like a confusing semantic detail.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: They want you to admit that there was no navy involved in the smuggle of boat people. That's why they are going to ask this question to you.

ALAN MORISON: Sure, but the paragraph takes about Thai naval forces - not the Royal Thai Navy - so...

They've been charged with defaming the Royal Thai Navy, but the Reuters paragraph referred instead to Thai naval forces profiting from the Rohingya and there are other naval forces in Thailand.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: It doesn't mean the Royal Thai Navy at all! Where is it? Where's that word?

The navy's translation of the paragraph could cost them years in prison.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: It doesn't mean the Royal Thai Navy, is that correct?

ALAN MORISON: Yes, it doesn't mean the Royal Thai Navy.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Ah, OK.

REPORTER: There seems to be quite a jovial atmosphere.

ALAN MORISON: There often is at hangings.

It's been a long day. Chutima's fatigue and Alan's frustration are showing. Still, there's something to look forward to later tonight. The last time Joshua Morison was in Phuket it was his honeymoon - having his dad on trial will be very different. Alan and Chutima were actually allowed to visit Australia earlier in the year. At the time, Josh wondered whether they should ever return to Phuket.

JOSHUA MORISON: He could have stayed around in Australia, laid low. I'm sure we could have organised for Chutima to do that, too. But he was true to his word. He promised the Thai authorities he would come back and did so on the day he said he would.

Alan's only had a few hours' sleep. Chutima's worried about how he's going to perform in court.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: I think he look terrible. I hope today he gonna improve from yesterday, but still not... Unpromising!

Despite the weeks of preparation, Alan's still unsure of his lawyers' strategy.

ALAN MORISON: Our legal team's very passionate and enthusiastic. It's just a matter of comprehending what they're trying to achieve and why.

REPORTER: Does it concern you, at all, about how it's going to go in the court?

ALAN MORISON: I hope not. Yeah I guess it does a little bit.

Because Alan's accused of defaming a proud Thai institution, the lawyers want him to stress he's pro-Thailand.

ALAN MORISON: Everything Phuketwan has done we've done for Thailand.

LAWYER: So you have to say that, "I do this because I love Thailand."

ALAN MORISON: Ah, not quite.

With less than a day to go before they're due in court, Alan and his lawyers disagree. They want him to claim he didn't personally put the offending article online - he just sent it to a webmaster in the United States. But Alan thinks that's misleading.

ALAN MORISON: Well, if I swear that I'm telling the truth, then that's all I intend to do. I mean, I can't make up stories about webmasters.

Chutima isn't thrilled with Alan's stubbornness and neither is lead lawyer, Siriwan Vongkietpaisan.

SIRIWAN VONGKIETPAISAN (Translation): He wants to speak what's on his mind and this has been difficult for several days in terms of working together with him.

It's difficult not to admire Alan's uncompromising stand. At one point he and Chutima were told through a diplomatic back channel the charges could be dropped if they just apologised. Their answer was swift.

ALAN MORISON: No, we don't see any need to apologise. All we've done is our job - goodness.

REPORTER: Isn't escaping years in jail need enough, potentially?

ALAN MORISON: No, we're happy to put ourselves at risk in a small way if we can change the world for the better. We'll find out in the next few days. I just had to knock back on an SBS News interview.

BBC INTERVIEWER: Okay, now you need to get back a little bit.

ALAN MORISON: Do you want to see my trousers, or not?

REPORTER: Would you describe him as a stubborn man?

JOSHUA MORISON: Certainly I think he's strong willed to the point where he does push stubborn a little bit, I think.

ALAN MORISON: The danger is that in the present mood in Thailand the media could be put back in shackles. But there's still a chance for Thailand to win in the end.

Along with the media, loyal Phuketwan readers have also come to show their support.

MAN: Such unbiased, amazing coverage. Thank you.

ALAN MORISON: Thank you.

Today they'll hear from the prosecution witnesses, the police officers who handled the investigation and Navy Captain Panlob Komtonlok who filed the original complaint.

PANLOB KOMTONLOK, ROYAL THAI NAVY (Translation): We found that it's an offence, according to the law, so this is why the navy needs to protect our reputation.

There's no filming or photography allowed in the courthouse, so I wait outside for Alan and Chutima.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: It's good - so far, so good.

And Alan's completely on board with his lawyers now.

ALAN MORISON: We thought the law team were very effective today and we hope it's as good tomorrow and the day after.

It will be another late night - one that rehearsal with the lawyers before they testify tomorrow.

REPORTER: How are you feeling this morning?

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: I'm feeling tired, feeling sleepy.

ALAN MORISON: We're a very small organisation but this is a very big principle.

Hours later, as I wait for Alan and Chutima to emerge, I find out something extraordinary happened today. Barrister Mark Plunkett's observing the trial for the International Federation of Journalists.

MARK PLUNKETT, BARRISTER: Interesting developments - the public prosecutor declines to attend, which means the evidence of the defendants is unchallenged.

REPORTER: The prosecutor wasn't there? You been to many trials where the prosecutor doesn't turn up?

MARK PLUNKETT: It's the first I've heard of in my 34 years as a barrister.

ALAN MORISON: Yeah, I was relieved to know that we weren't going to be cross-examined but there's still some more time, so we have to wait and see.

An early finish means a group lunch. The lawyers tell me the prosecutor's no-show means one of two things - either a conviction is a foregone conclusion, or the prosecutor thinks she has no chance of winning. Chutima's actually disappointed.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: I would love to answer any questions that the prosecutor would ask.

REPORTER: You were looking forward to it? Being cross-examined?

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Yeah, yeah, yes.

REPORTER: Bring it on?

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Yes, yes. I'm sure of myself. I've done nothing wrong.

ALAN MORISON: You haven't done anything wrong.

Tomorrow - the final day - will be all about the defence witnesses, including Abdul Kalam - a Rohingya activist who advises Thai police on trafficking. The lawyers rehearse his testimony.

LAWYER (Translation): What did the navy do after arresting them?

ABDUL KALAM (Translation): They arrest them and call the broker.

Crucially, he'll back up the claim at the heart of the Reuters' paragraph - Rohingya refugees told him they were bought by traffickers from naval forces.

ABDUL KALAM (Translation): The buyers told them, "We paid for you". Two, three, four or five thousand per head. That's what they said. I think the right thing to do is to be a witness. I'm glad there's someone helping our people. If they lose, what will happen to Rohingyas and to me?

After all the intense build-up, the end of the trial inevidently feels like an anti-climax.

REPORTER: Did the judge say anything about what's happening next?

ALAN MORISON: September 1 is the verdict.

REPORTER: September 1 - is when you find out?

ALAN MORISON: That is right. Then we'll know.

In times of need, Chutima likes to visit this shrine on Phuket's Monkey Hill.

CHUTIMA SIDASATHIAN: Try to offer the gods and bring luck to me, that's it.

Inside there are icons representing different faiths, but Alan knows where his prayers are going.

ALAN MORISON: To me, among these images is probably one of the Goddess of Journalism as well. If there is not a Goddess of journalism, then we're in big bother.

Alan and Chutima believe they've always acted with Thailand's best interests at heart. And they do have faith that this will be recognised.

ALAN MORISON: Yeah, look at that guy. We're confident that the Thai legal system will serve us well, and we'll be found innocent.

If they're not, the world's most persecuted minority could lose its champion.

ALAN MORISON: The future of the Rohingya depends on freedom of speech. All we need is for hatred and racism to be obliterated and I guess that's why journalism exists.

Reporter/Camera
AMOS ROBERTS

Producer
GEOFF PARISH

Researcher
WILL MUMFORD

Fixer
NAT SUMON

Editor
SIMON PHEGAN

Translations
KANYARAT RITTIDECH
MOHAMMED ANWAR

25th August 2015