Media executive and chief editor in jail over defamation charges

Than Htut Aung (BBC Burmese)

Than Htut Aung (BBC Burmese)

 

Wai Phyo (BBC Burmese)

Wai Phyo (BBC Burmese)

A media executive and an editor were sent to prison on 11 November 2016 for writing about an alleged corruption of a Myanmar government official. They are detained at Insein Prison until the court hearing on 25 November 2016.

On 9 November 2016, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein filed a lawsuit against Eleven Media Group (EMG) chief executive officer Dr. Than Htut Aung and editor in chief Wai Phyo under Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law for an editorial titled “Myanmar: a year after the Nov 8 polls” and a Facebook post on the same issue. The law prohibits “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network” and is punishable by up to three years in prison, fine, or both.

First published on 5 November 2016 by the Asia News Network (ANN) and again by the Daily Eleven newspaper on 6 November 2016, the editorial, while discussing corruption and crony capitalism, said: “In social media, stories have circulated about a newly elected minister, making just $2,500 a month, being seen wearing a $100,000 Patek Philippe watch…. The individual who allegedly gave this ‘gift’ to the elected minister was recently released from jail after serving time for his involvement in a drugs case. After the NLD came into power, this individual’s project for building a new city, received approval.”

From this information, Phyo Min Thein felt alluded to and filed a complaint, prompting authorities to file charges.

Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo initially tried to avoid arrest, according to Tamwe Police Lieutenant Colonel of Yangon’s Myint Htwe of Eastern District Police Force. But on Friday afternoon, the two went to the district police station, were taken to the Tamwe Township Court. Both are still under investigation.

On 8 November 2016, the Yangon Region Administration submitted a complaint letter to the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) to investigate the liability of EMG and ANN. On 10 November 2016, MPC issued a statement saying that it cannot mediate as there is an ongoing case at the Tamwe Police Station. According to article 37 of the by-laws of the Myanmar Press law, the MPC can no longer intervene if a victim filed a civil or criminal case at the police station, and the complaint letter shall be revoked.

The military, new government, and some private citizens continue to use Article 66 (d) to curtail freedom of expression during the past 11 months. Local sources say, at least 10 cases have been filed and had convictions.

In a joint statement, the MPC, Myanmar Journalists Association, Myanmar Journalists Network, Myanmar Lawyers Network, and Burma News International said the lawsuit is: “tantamount to neglecting the Press Law and the Press Council, and in consequence a suppression of the freedom of expression.”

“The speed by which authorities have moved to prosecute this case is quite alarming. It does not reflect well on the current government’s approach to the dealing with the media,” said SEAPA executive director Edgardo Legaspi. Unfortunately, he explained, the police moved to quickly to deny any opportunity for mediation by the press council.

“It is also appalling that authorities have denied bail to the two journalists, for the relatively minor offense of defamation,” Legaspi added, stressing that defamation should never be a criminal offense.

SEAPA called on the Yangon authorities to allow the press council to mediate the case to help strengthen the media community in the country.