A Myanmar court rejected bail Thursday for an independent newspaper editor and a satire columnist who were detained last week over an article that allegedly insulted the armed forces under a controversial telecommunications law, sparking a protest campaign from fellow journalists who say it curbs free speech.
Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of The Voice Daily, and the newspaper’s satire columnist who writes under the pseudonym "British Ko Ko Maung," were detained on June 2 under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people. Violators are subject to a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine.
"According to the Criminal Code, Section 497/1, they can be let out on bail, but their bail requests were rejected. The judge asked us for more documents and we produced more documents, but then he said he can’t wait to receive more documents to support bail because they have to be sentenced as soon as possible," Myo Thein, lawyer for Kyaw Min Swe and British Ko Ko Maung, told RFA's Myanmar Service.
A second lawyer and advisor to the pair of journalists said denying bail to the editor and satirist for charges that can carry a maximum of three years was unlawful, when bail is granted for people facing much stiffer terms of 5-10 years.
"We don’t know and can’t say whether there is an organization or a group that influences the judicial sector, but what we can say is that people in the judicial sector are working in ways that go against current laws. We will submit what we see to higher-level organizations to deal with this misuse [of law]," said lawyer Khin Maung Myint.
The next court hearing for the two men will be on June 16, and their lawyers will again seek release on bail.
British Ko Ko Maung had written a piece entitled “Oath of the Nation of Bullets” that mocked “Union Oath,” a military propaganda film that aired on the military-owned Myawaddy TV channel to coincide with Armed Forces Day on March 27.
Lieutenant Colonel Tun Tun Oo of the Yangon regional command initially filed a complaint with the Myanmar Press Council charging that the piece offended the dignity of the armed forces, according to a report by the online news agency Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). The council mediates disputes involving the press.
The Voice Daily issued an apology on May 14, but the military filed charges on May 17 at Bahan Township Police Station in the commercial capital Yangon.
In response to the case, more than 100 Myanmar journalists gathered on Tuesday in Yangon to call on the government to drop lawsuits filed against reporters under Section 66(d) and formed a 21-member Committee for the Protection of Journalists to demand that the government, parliament, and the military abolish the law.
On Thursday, they launched a 10-day white armband campaign called “Freedom of the Press” to agitate for the repeal of the statute, and the drive quickly spread to other Myanmar cities, including Mandalay, where reporters fanned out and distributed pamphlets in plazas and markets.
"We write news articles on print media which are properly registered, but when we post these articles online, we are arrested and charged under 66(d). We are joining this campaign as we are media people and to show our stand for media people," said Min Din from the Mandalay Era Journal.
"I am joining this campaign to show my will to amend Section 66(d) and to reform the Myanmar Media Council as we don’t think it stands up for reporters," said San Yu Kyaw, an official at the Mandalay Journalism School.
The Irrawaddy online news service reported that journalists and supporters from Sagaing region in north-central Myanmar also joined the white armband campaign and called on the government to review the Telecommunications Law.
Rights groups argue that the defamation provision of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law has been used to silence criticism of the government, military, and Buddhist leaders, and should be dropped.
The Voice Daily case brings the number of people who have been charged under Section(d) to 56 under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. So far, seven of them have been sentenced to jail.
Reported by Aung Theinkha, Thant Zin Oo, Set Paing Toe and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.