The Myanmar government has pressed defamation charges against 11 staff of the Myanmar Herald after the paper carried an interview with a political scientist criticizing President Thein Sein, an editor of the journal said Friday.
Editor-in-charge Aung Tun Lin told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the Herald employees had been charged under the new Media Law for allegedly tarnishing the reputation of Thein Sein.
According to the information ministry, the Myanmar Herald Journal ran an interview in which political scientist Myo Yan Naung Thein described the president's words as "gibberish, irrational, cheap, and inconsistent ... completely nonsensical, absurd, and insane."
“We have been summoned to court on Nov. 14 for violating Media Law section 25(b),” he said, adding that the hearing would take place in the capital Naypyidaw’s Pokebathiri township.
“Eleven of us, including chief editor Kyaw Swar Win and publishing officer Zeya Moe, have been summoned.”
Aung Tun Lin said that the charges, which are the first to be brought by the Ministry of Information against a publication since the Media Law was passed in March this year, were unusual in that they were also leveled against newspaper distribution staff.
“In other cases [against publications], only the editors-in-chief and the writers were sued,” he said.
“Here they have included not only all of the editorial staff, but also the distribution staff, who have nothing to do with the matter.”
The 11 employees face fines of between 300,000 kyats (U.S. $295) and 1,000,000 kyats (U.S. $985) if found guilty.
The Ministry of Information said the interview the Herald published in August with Myo Yan Naung Thein contained criticism of the president that was extreme.
But Aung Tun Lin questioned why the ministry only decided to pursue legal action against the Herald for publishing Myo Yan Naung Thein’s comments when editors ran another highly critical interview with senior opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party official Tin Oo a week later.
“In addition to publishing Myo Yan Naung Thain's interview, the following week we published Tin Oo's views and criticisms, in which he strongly criticized the president,” he said.
“Now we must ask the Ministry of Information why they are only suing us for what Myo Yan Naung Thain has said.”
Apology not accepted
Aung Tun Lin said that before the dispute progressed to court action, the two sides had joined mediation meetings through the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), during which the ministry had demanded that the Herald print an apology.
“We did what we could … and apologized to a certain extent, but they did not accept it. They just went ahead and sued,” he said.
Aung Tun Lin defended his publication’s decision to run the interviews, 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 said.
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 reformist administration has implemented a series of reforms to push Myanmar towards democracy, including new laws enshrining media freedom.
But rights groups say that the intimidation and arrest of journalists appeared to be worsening in the former military state, even though official censorship has ended.
While Aung Tun Lin acknowledged that the media has enjoyed significantly more room to operate in Myanmar within the last three years, “to say that it is free—I don't think that we have reached such a stage as yet.”
“We [in the media] have pointed out in transparent terms the shortcomings, drawbacks, and weaknesses of the government and I wonder if they are making an example out of us so that we will not dare to write about them,” he said.
He also expressed concerns over other media organizations that have been targeted by the government, including the Eleven Media Group—four staff members of which the Ministry of Information filed criminal charges of defamation against late last month.
The group’s Weekly Eleven had published an article in June questioning whether the Media Law then before parliament favored state-owned media, and alleged misuse of public revenue by the ministry over suspiciously high prices it had paid for a printing press.
Aung Tun Lin said that the Herald would have to wait and see whether it would get a fair shake in legal proceedings initiated by the government against its journalists and those of other media organizations.
“[According to the Constitution] all three of the respective arms of governance—namely, the judicial, the legislative and the executive branches—must operate independently of one another,” he said.
“Now that [the ministry] has filed a suit, we will have to wait until court is in session to know to what extent the proceedings with be just and fair.”
Reported by Ma San Maw Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.