Myanmar police arrested three journalists from the Eleven Media Group on incitement charges on Wednesday for publishing an article that was critical of the Yangon regional government’s business ventures, in what political observers and media watchdogs decried as the latest attack on press freedom in the Southeast Asian nation.
Regional government director Aung Kyaw Khine filed the lawsuit on Tuesday at Tamwe township police station against managing editors Kyaw Zaw Lin and Nari Min and chief reporter Phyo Wai Win, who are being held in Insein Prison on the city’s outskirts as they await trial on charges of allegedly violating Section 505(b) of the Penal Code.
The vaguely-worded section prohibits the publication or circulation of any statement, rumor or report with intent to cause “fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offense against the state or against the public tranquility.”
If the three are found guilty, they face a maximum sentence of two years in prison, a fine, or both with no eligibility for bail. Their next hearing will be on Oct. 17.
Police went to the media group’s offices late Tuesday to arrest the men, but they had left work for the day. The three appeared at the township court on Wednesday.
The Yangon region government is suing the journalists over the Oct. 8 publication of an article written by Phyo Wai Win in the Weekly Eleven News Journal, charging that officials mismanaged public funds through business dealings by Yangon region Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein. The suspect transactions included a U.S. $100 million contract awarded without a tender to import buses from China and irregularities in a public-private partnership in which regional ministers are shareholders.
“I didn’t write anything untrue,” Phyo Wai Win said. “I wrote only the truth.”
Kyaw Min Swe, former chief editor of the independent newspaper The Voice, who was charged with online defamation in 2017 for an article that mocked Myanmar’s military, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that members of the regional government filed the lawsuit against the journalists because they hold a grudge against them.
“Why did the government members respond to the journalists on account of a grudge in a manner that was not gentlemanly?” he asked. “They should act more like people of dignity and character.”
“There are many smarter ways to resolve this issue, but resolving it like this hurts the dignity of the regional government and [the ruling] National League for Democracy [NLD], and insults the people who elected this party,” he said.
Press council not informed
Myint Kyaw from the Myanmar Press Council said the trade union hadn’t been informed about the case.
“As the ruling government is filing a lawsuit against the journalists, it is very likely that the judiciary will make an unfair decision,” he said. “The journalists are also being sued under a major charge that is not a bailable offense, so this is an intentional effort to silence the media.”
Kyi Myint, a lawyer who is representing the three journalists, said that if authorities want to sue the journalists, they should do so under the country’s Media Law, which carries fines for those determined to be guilty of offenses related to their responsibilities and media ethics.
Myanmar’s Deputy Information Minister Aung Hla Tun agreed.
“Journalists should be charged under the Media Law through the press council,” he said.
Journalist and political activist Thiha Thway also said that the Yangon regional government should have filed a complaint with the Myanmar Press Council, whose members are nominated by Myanmar’s president and parliament to facilitate discussions and negotiations when problems arise between government authorities and the media.
“This means that negotiation and discussion are government policy,” he told RFA. “The Yangon regional government should follow this [Union] government policy and exercise it.”
Thuzar, a journalist from Myanmar Women Journalist Society who only goes by one name, also said authorities should pursue grievances against journalists through the press council.
“But they are doing what they want,” she said. “The situation of the media in Myanmar is getting worse and worse.”
‘Total insult to press freedom’
Though the pro-democracy NLD government under the leadership of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is the first civilian-led administration in Myanmar in nearly half a century, officials have increasingly sued their critics and the media in what many view as backpedaling on freedom of expression and press freedom after decades of stifling military rule.
Officials, along with Buddhist monks and military officers, have also filed defamation lawsuits against journalists and others under vaguely worded laws to muzzle them.
“I’m surprised to see a party which has been speaking out for democracy and human rights for 20 years now operating like this,” said outspoken former information minister Ye Htut. “It seems the current government is worried about losing state power in the next election … but it must not solve such problems by aggressively seeing its opponents as enemies.”
Monywa Aung Shin, a member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee, said the arrests of the three journalists is regrettable.
“I personally feel sorry about seeing them arrested,” he told RFA. “I think both the government and the media should perform checks and balances on accountability and freedom.”
Attorney Thein Than Oo called the arrests a “total insult to press freedom” and strongly condemned the actions.
“If the regional lawmakers’ discussion on the auditor general’s report about the Yangon regional government’s budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year is considered something that is a chargeable offense under Section 505(b), then that would create a situation where no news journals or newspapers could publish in the country,” he said.
“It means authorities are becoming dictators and have ignored people by doing what they want,” he said. “They are also abandoning democratic standards.”
Thein Nyunt, chairman of the New National Democracy Party, said the arrest of the journalists was reminiscent of how previous military governments dealt with the media.
“People have lost their rights granted under the 2008 constitution,” he said. “If we go forward like this, we will never have democracy.”
Hla Htay, a Yangon regional lawmaker said that in his view nothing in Phyo Wai Win’s article hurt the regional government.
Khin Myo Kyi, Yangon region’s new attorney general, declined to comment because the case has already been filed in court.
Imprisoning journalists ‘unacceptable’
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the arrests of the three Eleven Media Group journalists and called for their immediate and unconditional release.
“The arrest of the Eleven Media Group journalists is an affront to press freedom in Myanmar and demonstrates that the government in Myanmar is close to becoming an authoritarian regime that does not believe in democracy,” Ravi R. Prasad, head of advocacy at IPI, said in a statement issued Wednesday.
“These journalists were doing their job of exposing government mismanagement,” he said.
“Imprisoning journalists in connection with their work is unacceptable in a country that claims to be transitioning to democracy, said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement issued Wednesday.
“This kind of meddling takes Myanmar one step further away from the rule of law and respect for press freedom,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that the Eleven Media Group has been the subject of legal action by Yangon officials.
Than Htut Aung, the company’s chief executive officer, and Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Daily Eleven newspaper, were charged with defamation on Nov. 11 over an editorial that accused Yangon region Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein of receiving a U.S. $100,000 watch from an unnamed drug tycoon who was later awarded a lucrative contract for a city transit project.
They were later released on bail after publishing an apology.
In September, a Yangon court sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for violating a state secrets law while investigating a massacre of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state, despite sworn testimony that they had been set up.
Reported by Htet Arkar, Kyaw Zaw Win, and Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.