Bangkok: Reuters won a Pulitzer, the world’s top journalistic award, for its coverage of Rohingya boat people from Myanmar with the help of Thai journalist Chutima Sidasathian.
The international news agency hired Ms Chutima to open her contact book and arrange interviews for Reuters journalists doing the research that won the 2014 award.
For years Ms Chutima and Australian journalist Alan Morison had led coverage in Asia of the plight of Rohingya in their small on-line news site called Phuketwan that they produced on the Thai resort island of Phuket.
But Reuters has played down Ms Chutima’s role in the award-winning series since she and Mr Morison were sued by the Royal Thai Navy for re-publishing one paragraph from the Reuters series.
The company that employs 60,000 people world-wide has also distanced itself from the court proceedings that could see Ms Chutima and Mr Morison jailed for up to seven years when a court delivers its verdict in the case on Tuesday.
Reuters did not send a reporter or company representative to the three-day trial in July despite that its paragraph was at the centre of the case.
Mr Morison, 67, a former senior editor on The Age, said Reuters has “let the little guys take the rap.”
The verdict to be delivered in a Phuket court has ramifications for media freedom and focuses attention on the role of so-called “fixers” and interpreters hired by foreign correspondents, often in conflict and disaster zones.
They are usually local journalists who often receive no credit and little payment for their often dangerous and stressful work and are often left to deal with the ramifications of contentious reporting after correspondents that hired them have flown home.
Mr Morison said by “ignoring our case Reuters has acted like a US marine walking past a mugging.”
“Chutima’s intimate knowledge of the Rohingya story saved the Reuters journalists years of work,” he said.
A Reuters spokesman acknowledged the role that local journalists like Ms Chutima play “in assisting international news organisations like ourselves in accessing information” but claimed her role was limited in preparation of the series.
“As part of writing out story, we asked Chutima to assist in arranging appointments for our journalists as part of our news gathering,” the Reuters spokesman said.
“She did not act as a Reuters journalist or stringer and her contribution to the story was limited to arranging these appointments,” he said.
The spokesman said Reuters stands by the “fairness and accuracy of our Rohingya coverage, support the principles of a free press everywhere in the world – and the rights of journalists to go about their jobs without fear or hindrance in reporting the truth.”
A Royal Thai navy captain initially filed a criminal complaint against Reuters and two of its journalists over its Rohingya coverage.
But the navy has not pursued the case against Reuters as Ms Chutima and Mr Morison were left to defend the Reuters paragraph that quoted a people smuggler saying “Thai naval forces” usually earn money for spotting Rohingya boats or turning a blind eye to them.
A key defence argued by Ms Chutima and Mr Morison is that the indictment was erroneously translated from “Thai naval forces” to “Royal Thai Navy.
They argued there are multiple naval forces in Thailand.
Mr Morison said he doubts he would survive in Thailand’s chronically overcrowded jails if he is convicted but decided to stay in Thailand to fight the case with Ms Chutima in the interests of press freedom.
“We remain extremely concerned about the outcome but hopeful that we’ll be found not guilty,” Mr Morison said.
“Anything less than a not guilty verdict would be bad for freedom of the media both in Thailand and internationally,” he said.
Follow FairfaxForeign on Twitter
Follow FairfaxForeign on Facebook