A court in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw has fined two journalists one million kyats (U.S. $855) each after finding the duo guilty of defaming President Thein Sein, their lawyer said Tuesday, amid claims by rights groups that the government has been backsliding on media reforms.
Former chief editor of the Myanmar Herald Kyaw Swa Win and the journal’s deputy editor Win Ko Ko Oo were handed the maximum punishment for violating Chapter 4(9G) of Myanmar’s Media Law by the court in Pokeba Thiri township, lawyer Zaw Lin told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“There is nothing we can say about the sentencing, though we plan to appeal as a next step,” he said.
“We will have to pay the fine first and appeal at a subsequent court appearance. If we win the appeal, we will get our fine money back.”
Late last year, Ministry of Information official Myint Htwe leveled charges of defamation against Kyaw Swa Win, Win Ko Ko Oo—also known as Ant Khaung Min—and nine other employees of the Myanmar Herald. The nine others were acquitted Tuesday in a decision welcomed by Zaw Lin.
“I am glad to see nine from among 11 detainees freed today,” he said.
According to the information ministry, the Myanmar Herald ran an interview last August in which political scientist Myo Yan Naung Thein described the president's words as "gibberish, irrational, cheap, and inconsistent ... completely nonsensical, absurd, and insane."
The defamation charges, which were the first to be brought by the Ministry of Information against a publication since the Media Law was passed in March last year, were unusual in that they had also been leveled against newspaper distribution staff.
Complaints about media violations are meant to be brought to Myanmar’s Interim Press Council, a quasi-governmental body formed in 2012 to mediate between the press and the government.
The Irrawaddy online journal cited Myanmar Herald current chief editor Aung Kyaw Min as saying that while his paper was the focus of one of two complaints brought to the council by the Ministry of Information in September last year, the body had played little role in the dispute.
The report also quoted Aung Kyaw Min as condemning Tuesday’s ruling, saying his staff had done nothing wrong in publishing the interview.
“If they want [Myanmar] to become a democratic country, they shouldn’t restrict the press,” he told the Irrawaddy.
Last November, Myanmar Herald editor Aung Tun Lin defended the decision to run the interview, saying that the public has the right to read a variety of perspectives on how Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government is progressing with democratic reforms since taking over from the former junta in 2011.
“We don’t only publish what the government says; we also publish the views of the opposition if we think that they should be made known,” he told RFA at the time.
Under Myanmar’s nearly five decades of military rule, journalists were forbidden to cover certain topics such as corruption, poverty, and natural disasters, and government crackdowns landed many reporters in prison.
Thein Sein’s administration has implemented a series of reforms to push Myanmar towards democracy, including laws enshrining media freedom. The government has abolished prepublication censorship and granted licenses to a number private publishing outlets.
But rights groups say that the intimidation and arrest of journalists appeared to be worsening in the former military state and new freedoms appear to be backsliding.
Last month, London-based Amnesty International said that authorities are intensifying restrictions on the media ahead of national elections scheduled for Nov. 8, “using threats, harassment and imprisonment to stifle independent journalists and outlets.”
“Despite Myanmar’s much-touted ‘political opening’ since 2011, authorities are relying on old and new methods to intimidate media and restrict freedom of expression,” the group said, adding that at least 10 media workers had been jailed amid an intensified clampdown on the press over the past year.
The group also cited the case of journalist Par Gyi, who was shot dead while in military custody in October and whose exhumed body bore signs of torture, noting that while an investigation had been opened into his killing, “to date no one has been held to account.”
It said such cases contribute to a culture of fear among journalists working in Myanmar.
In addition to the 10 journalists in prison, more than a dozen others are currently facing trial, including a group of 17 editorial staffers from the Daily Eleven on contempt of court charges.
The Daily Eleven has recently published a series of articles on alleged corruption and abuse of power in Myanmar’s judicial system.
Eleven Media Group’s CEO, Than Htut Aung, was attacked last week by unknown assailants who fired steel bolts at his car with slingshots, damaging the vehicle, but leaving him unhurt. The motive for their attack remains unclear.
Reported by Myo Thant Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.