A group of Myanmar reporters filed charges on Wednesday against an army sergeant and police officer in Yangon for violating a law protecting citizens’ privacy and security, amid growing concerns about the state of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists has accused Corporal Soe Myint Aung from the Yangon Division Military Headquarters of illegally stalking them by taking their photos outside a courthouse in the city’s Bahan township on June 30 during a bail hearing for an editor of an independent newspaper who is being detained on defamation charges.
The journalists were showing their support for Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of The Voice Daily, who is charged with defamation of the military under a widely challenged section of the country’s Telecommunications Law.
They also filed charges under the country’s Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens against Bahan township police officer Aye Min Thein for not taking their complaint.
“That corporal was stalking us and taking photos,” said Tharlon Zaung Htet, a amember of Myanmar’s Committee for the Protection of Journalists.
“When we filed a case against him at a police station, those at the station responded that he hadn’t broken any law,” he said. “Actually, it is not police’s responsibility to determine this because they do not have the right to decide if someone is guilty or not.”
At the time, police also failed to take statements from the journalists and did not ask them for evidence, Tharlon Zaung Htet said.
“That’s why we have also filed a case against the police officer,” he said.
A judge will decide on Thursday whether to accept the charges against the sergeant and police officer.
Kyaw Min Swe and the paper’s satire columnist Kyaw Zwa Naing, who goes by the pen name British Ko Maung, were detained on June 2 and charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after the armed forces complained about a piece they had published that mocked a military propaganda film.
On June 16, the same court released Kyaw Zwa Naing after Kyaw Min Swe testified that he was solely responsible for posting on social media the article that allegedly insulted the armed forces.
Myanmar journalists and rights groups have called for the abolishment of Article 66(d) which 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.
They say that government and military officials are increasingly using the article to silence their critics, thereby threatening freedom of the press.
The court has rejected Kyaw Min Swe’s bail requests seven times.
ASEAN weighs in
In a related development, a group of lawmakers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Wednesday called for the government to immediately release three Myanmar journalists arrested in June in northern Shan state and repeal Article 66(d).
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued the call a day after an unexpected court appearance by the journalists at which their scheduled hearing date was postponed.
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 colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for being involved with an unlawful organization. They face up to three years in prison if convicted.
The APHR said the continued use of the law along with the use of Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act by those in power to target media critical of the government or military have raised concerns about the state of press freedom in Myanmar and highlighted the need for legislative reform.
“Myanmar authorities must immediately release and drop all charges against these dedicated journalists, who have been targeted on flimsy pretexts for simply doing their jobs,” said APHR chairman Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian parliament, in the statement.
“The clear abuse of existing statutes in this case demonstrates the need for quick action to repeal or amend all laws that have been used to arrest journalists and others for exercising their right to free expression,” he said.
The journalists’ next court date, which was scheduled for Friday, has been postponed to July 28.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is considering amendments to Article 66(d), including allowing bail for those charged and eliminating the ability of third parties to file complaints.
“This law is overly broad and wide open to abuse,” APHR Vice Chairperson Eva Kusuma Sundari, a lawmaker from Indonesia, said in the statement. “We are glad to hear that the NLD government is considering amending it, and we urge them to pursue a full repeal of Section 66(d). Its continued use represents a clear attempt to stifle criticism of the government.”
“We hope that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will live up to the promises that got them elected: building an open, tolerant Myanmar that respects fundamental democratic freedoms,” she said. “Freedom of the press is a core component of sustainable democracy, supporting the promotion of transparency, accountability, and the welfare of the people.”
Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.