Report by Kyaw Ye Lynn and Nai Nai
YANGON, Myanmar – A local court found two journalists guilty of defaming a former army officer on 12 July 2016.
Thae Gone Township court judge Daw Soe Mar Aye ruled against The Ladies News Journal editor Sai Sai and reporter Maung Mae on a complaint filed by an army officer. The journalists were ordered to pay a fine of 20,000.00 kyat (less than 20.00 USD) each or face six months imprisonment. They paid the penalty.
In late September 2013, the local weekly publication ran a story on a land dispute case in the Pyay district, Bago region involving four farmers and former military colonel Khin Maung Win of the No. 80 Light Infantry Division. The farmers lost the control of the 14 acres of land to the officer during the former junta rule.
After a month after the report came out, Khin Maung Win filed a defamation lawsuit against the two journalists and a farmer for writing and publishing the story citing article 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code.
In his complaint, Khin Maung Win cited an inaccuracy in the report, which was based on the documents provided by the farmers asking for their land back from the authorities.
“U Khin Maung Win told the court that he wasn’t yet in the area in 1995, and that small mistake hurts his reputation badly,” Sai Sai told SEAPA.
The report stated that the army officer confiscated the land in 1995. It was confiscated in 1997-1998 according to the township-level Review Committee on Confiscated Farm Lands and Other Lands.
The court conceded that this detail in the story defamed the army officer.
The journalists said they took great care in their coverage knowing fully well that it deals with sensitive issues.
“We did not make a mistake. The mistake is from the complaint letter that we received from U Pyone Cho, a local farmer. We just used what appeared in the letter,” said Sai Sai.
After he retired from the Army, Khin Maung Win became head of the Thae Gone township branch of the National League for Democracy (NLD). He was fired from the post before the 2015 general elections after an investigation that showed he confiscated the land.
“Now the township and region-level authority ruled the return of the land to the rightful owners,” said Maung Mae. “I am happy for that,” he added.
SEAPA condemned the ruling. “The error was minor and could have been corrected easily following the regular newsroom processes. The court sentence shows how criminal defamation is a disproportionate measure for such incidents,” said SEAPA executive director Edgardo Legaspi.
A disturbing trend
Than Htay, a member of the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), said only a few people were aware of this case.
“I transferred 50,000 kyat to Maung Mae in June 2014 as a support from MJN,” he said.
Defamation lawsuits against the media, especially from the military, became a trend after the censorship board was abolished in 2012.
Thiha Saw of the Myanmar News Media Council said that the council’s complaint mechanism, which was set up in 2014, helped solve around 180 cases. But they did not know about The Ladies News Journal’s case, he added: “Without informing us, we can’t help them effectively.”
“At that time in 2014, we had a case against the journalists from the Unity journal, and so their case becomes low-profile,” Than Htay said.
The Ladies News Journal ruling is the second against journalists under the newly democratic government NLD. BBC Burmese reporter Nay Myo Lin was convicted with three months of imprisonment with hard-labor for hurting and obstructing the police from his duty. He was charged under Article 332 of the Penal Code for “voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty.”
In the last week of June, a military officer sued against the 7Day News publication, a leading media house in the country, under Article 131 of the penal code for publishing an ill-intentioned article. The Army later withdrew the charge after the publication speedily apologized about the report.
The Ladies News Journal was established in 2012 covering politics, socio-economic, environment, health and a wide range of issues across Myanmar. In November 2015, the journal stopped their print publication and now only operates as an online news site. Currently, the journal’s operation depends on five journalists.