A prominent Myanmar investigative journalist charged under a controversial legal statute with defaming the country’s most notorious ultranationalist Buddhist monk was released on bail on Monday during the first day of his trial in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region.
Authorities detained Swe Win, the 40-year-old edito-in-chief of the nonprofit, independent news service Myanmar Now news service, at Yangon International Airport on Sunday night as he was preparing to go to Thailand on a business trip.
They transferred him from Yangon’s Insein Prison, where he was held overnight, to Mandalay to face charges for violating Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act by defaming Wirathu, a firebrand monk who frequently uses hate speech targeting the country’s Muslim minority.
The article prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine for those found guilty of violating it.
Mandalay resident Kyaw Myo Shwe filed a criminal defamation case in Mandalay against the reporter on March 7, accusing him of insulting Wirathu of the ultranationalist monk group Ma Ba Tha in comments Swe Win made in February on Facebook.
The judge released Swe Win on bail during the hearing at Mahar Aungmyay township court until his trial date on Aug. 7.
“I welcome the judge’s decision to release me on bail, as releasing me under Article 66(d) is up to him,” Swe Win said. “I would like to say that I will face whatever comes along with this case within the boundary of the law.”
Fortify Rights weighs in
The East Asia-based rights group Fortify Rights called on Monday for the charges against Swe Win to be dropped.
“Swe Win is a principled journalist with a towering reputation for exposing injustice,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “This is yet another feeble attempt to criminalize journalism. Journalism is not a crime.”
In late June, 60 Myanmar and international organizations, including Fortify Rights, called on Myanmar authorities to drop Article 66(d) in accordance with international human rights laws and standards governing freedom of expression.
Amendments to the controversial article, which rights groups say is used by people in power to silence their critics, are being discussed in the national parliament.
“A free press serves the public interest,” Smith said. “What we’re seeing now is a crackdown on journalists. Parliament should repeal the legal framework used to target the legitimate work of journalists and put an end to this crackdown.”
Thet Myo Oo, a Wirathu supporter, filed a related complaint against Swe Win on March 19 under section 295 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes insulting religion, for comments he made about Wirathu during a press conference on March 8.
In early April, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture issued a statement saying that Swe Win had not contravened any law in reporting on Wirathu.
Later that month, the Kyauktada township court in Yangon dismissed the complaint, saying that it should have been made by Wirathu himself.
The State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), a government-appointed body of high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, has banned Wirathu from giving public sermons for a year for his repeated hate speech against other religions.
Swe Win, who has reportedly received threats for his reporting on Wirathu, is the fifth journalist to be arrested and detained in Myanmar during the last two months.
Others recently detained include Lawi Weng, also known as Thein Zaw, of the independent online journal The Irrawaddy, and Aye Naing and Pyae Bone Aung, who work for the Democratic Voice of Burma news service.
They face charges under section 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act for covering a narcotics-burning event in northeastern Shan state hosted by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group engaged in periodic clashes with government soldiers. They could be sentenced up to three years in prison if found guilty.
Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of The Voice Daily, was detained and charged in June with defamation under Article 66(d) after a Myanmar Army officer filed a suit against him and the paper’s satire columnist Kyaw Zwa Naing, who goes by the pen name British Ko Ko Maung, in Yangon’s Bahan township on May 17.
Charges under Article 66(d) were dropped against Kyaw Zwa Naing on June 16 after Kyaw Min Swe testified that he was solely responsible for posting on social media a satirical article that allegedly insulted the armed forces by mocking a military propaganda film.
Both have also been charged with violating Article 25(b) of the Media Law in a second lawsuit filed by the government military in Yangon, though Kyaw Zwa Naing has been released on bail.
The article specifies a fine of 300,000-1 million kyats (U.S. $217-U.S. $724) for media workers found guilty of violating professional responsibilities and codes of conduct under three subsections of the law, including writing news in a manner that deliberately harms the reputation of an individual or organization, and which “negatively affects human rights.”
Reported by Hset Paing Toe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.