GENEVA (Reuters) - The top U.N. human rights official urged Thailand on Thursday to drop criminal charges against two journalists accused of defamation for citing a Reuters investigation into the role of Thai naval security forces in smuggling Rohingya asylum seekers.
A Reuters investigation, based on interviews with people smugglers and more than two dozen survivors of boat voyages, revealed in July how some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in Rohingya fleeing Myanmar to escape religious persecution.
Thailand's navy denied the Reuters report, which was published in July. Select portions of Reuters' report were later cited by Phuketwan, a small English-language newspaper based in Phuket.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay voiced concern on Thursday that two Phuket-based journalists, editor Alan Morison and reporter Chutima Sidasathian, have been charged with defamation and breaching the Computer Crimes Act for quoting the Reuters article.
"We urge the Government of Thailand to drop the charges against Mr. Morison and Ms. Sidasathian and to ensure the freedom of the press in the country," Pillay's spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement issued in Geneva.
Pillay's office in Bangkok has been in touch with the government about the case and the charges filed by the Royal Thai Navy, the spokeswoman told Reuters.
Criminal prosecution for defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of the press, the statement said.
"The criminal charges against Mr. Morison and Ms. Sidasathian could have serious implications on Phuketwan's future operations, possibly compromising its ability to report on issues related to Rohingya asylum seekers to the public," it said.
If convicted, the two journalists face up to two years' imprisonment on the criminal defamation charges and five years in prison for breaching the Computer Crimes Act, as well as fines of up to 100,000 Thai baht ($3,100), it added.
"We stand by our story," Reuters spokeswoman Barb Burg said of the news agency's original report. "It was fair and balanced, and we have not been accused of criminal libel."
The Rohingya are a stateless, mainly Muslim ethnic minority who the United Nations says are the victims of religious persecution in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Earlier this month a Reuters investigation in three countries uncovered a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.
The Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay thousands of dollars to release them.
The United Nations and the United States promptly called for investigations into the latest findings.
Thailand will help the United Nations and United States with any investigation into the findings of the Reuters report that Thai immigration officials moved Myanmar refugees into human-trafficking rings, the prime minister has said.
A former Thai magazine editor was jailed for 10 years in January for insulting the royal family under the country's lese-majeste law, a sentence that drew condemnation from Pillay, international rights groups and the European Union.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)