Phuket - Thai authorities on Thursday charged two journalists with defaming Thailand's navy in an online news report about the trafficking of refugees from Myanmar, amid concerns about press freedom in the country.
The English-language news website Phuketwan posted a story last July carrying excerpts from a report by the Reuters news agency alleging that members of the Thai military were involved in trafficking captured immigrants from Myanmar's beleaguered Rohingya ethnic minority.
The charges against Alan Morison, the website's Australian editor, and his Thai colleague, Chutima Sidasathien, came several days after Reuters won a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for its series on the violent persecution of the Rohingya - a Muslim minority that rights groups say has been subjected to systematic abuse and forced segregation.
The journalists appeared in a court on the southern island of Phuket to hear charges of defamation and violation of the 2007 Computer Crime Act. If found guilty, they could face up to seven years in prison and a fine of $3 010.
"To us, it's still very much a case that shouldn't be going to court, and sadly it's going to damage Thailand's reputation as a democracy because these kinds of cases shouldn't occur in any democracy," Morison told The Associated Press.
The navy filed the lawsuit against the pair in December. Human rights and press freedom groups have criticised the navy and urged that the charges be dropped.
The trial of Phuketwan's journalists was "unjustified and constitutes a dark stain on Thailand's record for respecting media freedom," Brad Adams, the Asia director of New York-based Human Right Watch, said in an email.
"The Thai navy should have debated these journalists publicly if they had concerns with the story rather than insisting on their prosecution under the draconian Computer Crimes Act and criminal libel statutes."
Both defendants were released on $3 010 bail.