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Two Reuters reporters were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for international journalism on Monday for reporting on the trafficking of Burma’s stateless Rohingya Muslims. The prize was announced just days before two Thailand-based journalists are set to appear in court, where they may face up to seven years in jail for republishing one paragraph of the award-winning work that they, in part, made possible.
The prestigious award was granted to Jason Szep and Andrew RC Marshall for their “courageous reports” detailing abuses against Rohingya Muslims trying to flee Burma. Their coverage was the first by international media to suggest official state cooperation with inhumane and highly lucrative human trafficking networks based in southern Thailand.
“We are delighted for Reuters,” said Alan Morison, the Australia-born founder and editor of Phuketwan online news. “We’ve helped many organisations to cover the Rohingya, and we were very pleased when Reuters decided to take up the issue.”
Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, Morison expressed gratitude that the international media has taken interest in the story, though his own reporting on that very issue has landed him in less alluring circumstances.
Morison and his colleague, staff reporter Chutima Sidasathian, were summoned by the Phuket Police in December, five months after publishing an article titled, “Thai Military profiting from trade in boatpeople, says special report.”
The article relayed the findings of a Reuters investigative feature by Szep and collaborator Stuart Grudgings that implicated Thai naval officials in direct profits from a surge of Rohingya refugees.
While the movement of Rohingya from Burma to Malaysia — by way of Thai waters — has been ongoing for years, numbers have swelled since 2012, when communal violence in Burma’s western Arakan State led to sweeping displacement of the stateless minority. Over the past two years, an estimated 80,000 Rohingyas have taken the dangerous route from the Arakan coast to the Andaman Sea in hopes of finding refuge in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Phuketwan has reported consistently on the issue for years, and in 2009 received international recognition for breaking the story of Thailand’s “pushback” policy, whereby Thai authorities were authorised to tow boatloads of refugees out to sea and simply let them float away, many to their deaths.
At that time, said Morison, Phuketwan felt some pressure from the Thai police, but they were “very professional” and no charges were brought against him or his staff.
The pair were not so lucky in December, when the Royal Thai Navy threatened to levy charges of defamation and violation of Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act, claiming that Phuketwan’s full citation of one particular paragraph amounted to endangering state security.
Phuket Police have stated the intention to sue Reuters, but whether the London-based agency will also face charges remains unclear.
“The comparison couldn’t be more stark,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia Division, “on one side of the world, Reuters journalists win media’s top prize for revealing abuses against Rohingya boatpeople while in Thailand, the Thai Navy files serious criminal charges against a small website for simply re-printing the story.”
HRW has been steadfast in its criticism since the onset of the case, urging the government to drop all charges, revoke the Computer Crimes Act and investigate the Navy. Thai authorities could not be reached for comment and have made no indication that any of the requests will be addressed.
An initial hearing set for early March was postponed until 17 April, which could end in arraignment. Morison said there is little chance of the charges being dropped and that he and Chutima are prepared to go to prison.
While expressing congratulations to Szep and Marshall, Morison confessed he was “a little bit surprised that Reuters hasn’t said a bit more about what this means for media freedom.”