YANGON – An officer of the Myanmar army recently filed a criminal complaint against two journalists for allegedly sowing disunity among the military. Even though mediation by the Press Council caused the military to withdraw the case, this incident demonstrates how the military continues to throw its weight to get back at what it perceives as negative publicity.
Lieutenant Colonel Lin Tun of the Yangon Military Command filed a case against 7 Days’ chief editor Thaung Su Nyein and reporter Min Hein Kyaw on 25 June 2016 at the Kamarut Township police station.
The journalists faced charges under Section 131 of the Penal Code — which covers offenses that relate to the Army, Navy, or Air Force — which are punishable by a fine and a jail term of between 10 years to life imprisonment.
The military later decided to withdraw the case on Monday 27 June 2016 evening after mediation by the Myanmar News Media Council (MNMC, official name of the Press Council), a quasi-autonomous body tasked by the 2014 News Media Law to oversee disputes related to the news media.
“They discussed on the phone and reached an agreement,” said Thiha Saw, MNMC General Secretary. He provided no other details on the discussion. Representatives of the 7 Day newspaper were unavailable to comment on Tuesday (28 June 2016).
“I am happy that the case was solved with the Press Council’s assistance. I read the article thoroughly yesterday (27 June 2016) and found nothing wrong with the newspaper’s reporting,” said Information Minister Pe Myint.
Lin Tun alleged that the article “Shwe Mann urges military comrades to cooperate with current elected government” published on 24 April 2016 suggests “disunity” in Tamadaw (Myanmar Army) and encourages “treason.” The article quoted the comments of Shwe Mann, former speaker of the lower house of the previous parliament, who urged a cooperation between the military and the civilian government for the sake of the country.
Shwe Mann is a close ally of National League for Democracy leader and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. Shwe Mann was ousted as the chairman of the military-backed, former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, after a power struggle with then President Thein Sein prior to the November 2015 general election.
“I don’t know exactly (what happened). But I heard that the article made a big impact among military personnel. Senior officials discussed several times to sue U Shwe Mann and the newspaper,” said a senior army officer who asked not to be named for personal security.
Asked by SEAPA why the military did not file a case against Shwe Mann, he said “no comment.”
Let the Press Council know
“If they thought that the article would have an impact on the unity of the army, I want to ask why they didn’t talk to U Shwe Mann…. The newspaper just reported what a famous politician said,” said Yangon Journalism School founder Ye Naing Moe, who also described the lawsuit as “ridiculous.”
“The case shocked us. It’s a big threat to the media industry and press freedom,” Ye Naing Moe said.
The MNMC said that the military did not inform them of the case filing last Saturday.
“The military should have let the Media Council know first if they have some discontent with the media, so that we could address them and avoid these legal cases,” said Myint Kyaw, a member of MNMC.
The MNMC issued a statement regarding the case against 7 Day stating that any complaint about the article should have been addressed through the adjudication functions of the Council.
“Any complaint (about the media reporting) should be reported to the Press Council first. We don’t want to see newspapers and journalists being sued by individuals or organizations. I want to urge all to use the Press Council as a mediator or negotiator,” Pe Myint said.
“The Press Council must work harder to earn more trust,” said Ye Naing Moe.
Under military pressure
A freer media has been anticipated in Myanmar following the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy in November 2015.
After abolition of prepublication censorship and other reforms within the media, it became more difficult to know where the boundaries are. Lawsuits against journalists have added more complicated controls over the media in Myanmar.
Myint Kyaw said the media law cannot protect media personnel against legal actions in most disputes, especially those involving the military.
“In this case, the newspaper was sued under the Penal Code and the media law cannot be used,” he said.
Recently, the military has also used other forms of controlling the media.
Last year, the military banned local news media outlets from covering any statements released by ethnic Kokang rebels of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army.
In early June, the “Twilight over Burma” movie was banned from showing at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival because the military objected. They saw the movie as damaging to its image and national reconciliation.
Last 27 June 2016, the Ta’ang Women’s Organization was forced to cancel the press conference for the launch of a report on human rights abuses by the Myanmar Army in northern Shan State.
These incidents demonstrate that the army still wields a huge power despite the establishment of Myanmar’s first civilian government in decades.
“The military is still sensitive to the media because there are still wrongdoings,” said Ye Naing Moe.
(Kyaw Ye Lynn is a 2014 SEAPA fellow.)
[Updated, 28 June 17:20p.m.: We changed the lead paragraph to better reflect the action of the military.]