A Myanmar court in the town of Thibaw that is trying three journalists from independent, domestic news outlets for violating a statute of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act in northeastern Shan state heard testimony on Friday from the plaintiff, a Myanmar military officer, the defendants’ lawyer said.
The three journalists — Lawi Weng of the online journal The Irrawaddy and Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung of the Democratic Voice of Burma — were arrested by the military on June 26 for covering an illegal drug-burning event by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group that has been involved in hostilities with the Myanmar army.
The journalists have been charged under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for being involved with an unlawful organization. They face up to three years in prison if convicted.
The plaintiff, Captain Thet Naing Oo from the Myanmar army’s Infantry Unit 503, submitted video files of TNLA’s drug-burning ceremony confiscated from the detained reporters’ cameras as evidence, said Maung Win, the trio’s lawyer said.
Thet Naing Oo told the court during the hearing that the reporters were arrested on June 26, received remands on June 28, and were charged on July 7, he said.
The captain submitted 19 pieces of evidence that soldiers confiscated from the reporters, including a CD with video files of TNLA’s drug-burning ceremony that they copied from their cameras, Maung Maung Win said.
The court now needs to verify that the videos and photos on the CD are the same ones taken by the reporters, he said.
In the meantime, the reporter’s lawyers have requested that their clients be freed on bail, which the judge will take up during their next hearing on Aug. 4, he said.
The reporters were sent to prison in Thibaw to await their trial originally scheduled for July 10, though they were taken to court three days earlier. Another hearing was scheduled for July 21, but was actually held on July 18.
“Because they did this, it was very difficult for us, the family members of the reporters, because we live in Yangon,” said Aye Thwin, the brother of Aye Nai. “We need money to travel on a long trips to Thibaw, and we need to make do with what we earn from our jobs to be able to afford them.”
International rights groups, the American embassy in Myanmar, and domestic journalists have called for the immediate release of the three journalists.
Bail request denied
In a related development, a Yangon judge rejected the bail request of a newspaper editor detained on defamation charges for the ninth time on Friday, his lawyer said.
Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of The Voice Daily, was detained and charged in June with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after Lieutenant Colonel Lin Tun of the Myanmar Army filed a suit against him and 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.
Article 66(d) 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.
“Kyaw Min Swe’s bail appeal was rejected again today without a strong reason,” Kyaw Min Swe’s lawyer Khin Maung Myint said. “The judge just bail is not a possibility in this case.”
He also said he asked the judge to dismiss a witness because he is very close to the plaintiff.
Khin Maung Myint said he will ask the court to hear his client’s appeal to drop the charges under Article 66(d) as soon as possible, which the judge will decide on at the next hearing on Aug. 4.
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.
Domestic and international rights groups have called on the Myanmar government to repeal the vaguely worded statute increasingly used by those in power to silence their critics by accusing them of defamation. Myanmar’s parliaments is now debating changes to the law.
Myanmar’s military filed a second lawsuit against Kyaw Min Swe and Kyaw Zwa Naing on July 21 in Yangon, charging them with violating Article 25(b) of the Media Law.
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.”
After learning about the new charge, Kyaw Zwa Naing requested bail and was released on 2 million kyats (U.S. $1,448).
By Kan Thar and Thant Sin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.