Bangkok: Two journalists, including an Australian editor, went on trial in Thailand today over a report they published implicating the navy in human trafficking, as the United Nations urged the junta-ruled nation to drop the case.
The trial comes after the region's grim people-smuggling trade was dramatically highlighted in May when thousands of migrants were abandoned at sea and in foetid jungle camps by traffickers following a Thai crackdown, a crisis that eventually forced Southeast Asian governments to respond.
The charges against Alan Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian, of the Phuketwan news website, relate to a July 2013 article quoting an investigation by the Reuters news agency which said some Thai navy members were involved in trafficking Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar.
The pair could face up to two years in jail for criminal defamation and five years for breaching the Computer Crimes Act if they are found guilty.
The trial at Phuket Provincial Court began with a testimony from RN Pallop Komlotok, a navy captain, who confirmed he filed the defamation case on behalf of the navy, Siriwan Vongkietpaisan, a lawyer for the accused, told AFP.
"He also confirmed that the Phuketwan quotes were lifted from Reuters article," she said.
Reuters has not been charged over its reporting - part of a series honoured with a Pulitzer Prize last year - and rights groups have accused the navy of trying to muzzle the smaller Phuket-based English-language media outlet.
Speaking to AFP ahead of the trial, Morison said: "We do not understand why the military government has not withdrawn the case.
"The initial pursuits against Reuters were dropped. We quote exactly the same paragraph... (They are pursuing us) for only one paragraph reproduced word-to-word from Reuters."
After the hearing closed for the day Chutima said she felt "confident" the pair would be cleared and that she and Morison were due to give their testimonies when the trial resumes tomorrow. A verdict is expected within 30 days.
Today, the United Nations Human Rights Office urged Thailand to drop the charges against the two journalists.
"Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest," it said in a statement.