A Thai court has cleared an Australian journalist of criminal defamation charges brought by the country’s navy.
Alan Morison, 67, formerly from Melbourne and editor of online news service Phuketwan, and Thai reporter Chutima Sidasathian, were found not guilty by a senior Thai judge at a Phuket criminal court hearing on Tuesday.
“It’s a very satisfying judgment,” Morison told AAP soon after the ruling to a packed court room of well wishers and media.
“It’s a triumph of media freedom in Thailand and pretty good for media freedom everywhere else,” he said.
If the two reporters had been found guilty they faced up to seven years in jail for criminal defamation and breaches of Thailand’s tough Computer Crimes Act.
In December 2013, the Royal Thai Navy brought the charges against the reporters after Phuketwan republished excerpts from a June Reuters newsagency story that alleged Thai security forces were involved in the trafficking of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar.
Thai reporter Chutima, a target of harassment by local authorities, had provided assistance as a translator for several foreign media, including the Reuters’ journalists, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Rohingya issue.
Morison said upon hearing the not guilty verdict, he felt great relief that “the nightmare dream had probably ended”.
“We tried to conceal it, but it has been enormous strain, and you can’t sit in a court in a foreign country and not understand what’s happening and not feel a sense of unease,” he said.
Human rights groups and media advocates also welcomed the verdict.
Several international organisations, including the United Nations, had lent support to the journalists.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the outcome was “a vindication of the resistance of these two brave journalists to these charges by the Thai Navy”.
“This is a case that should never have been filed in the first case,” Robertson told AAP.
He said HRW believed the criminal defamation statutes and Computer Crimes Act were used in a way that was detrimental to freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
Amnesty International in a statement called the verdict a positive decision but called on Thai authorities to improve its rights record including unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression.
Morison told AAP in announcing the verdict, the judge said the navy, by pressing charges under the Computer Crimes Act, had used the legislation inappropriately.
“We took on board the entire defence case and we were satisfied we proved our point. The ‘little guys’ can win,” he said.