More than 100 Myanmar journalists gathered on Tuesday in Yangon to call on the government to drop lawsuits filed against reporters under controversial Article 66(d) of the country's Telecommunications Law frequently used by those in powerful positions to silence their critics.
They formed a 21-member Committee for the Protection of Journalists to demand that the government, parliament, and the military abolish the law used to accuse reporters and editors of slander, the group said in a statement issued during their meeting.
They also urged civil society organizations to join in their efforts to eliminate legal statutes that threaten freedom of the press.
Committee members said the journalists will begin a white armband campaign called “Freedom of the Press” on Thursday when a court hearing for two detained staffers of the publication The Voice Daily is scheduled.
The newspaper's editor Kyaw Min Swe and satire columnist Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing, who writes under the pseudonym British Ko Ko Maung, were charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after the armed forces complained about a piece they published that mocked a military propaganda film.
Article 66(d) prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people, and violators are subject to a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine.
The group will march from the Bahan courthouse in the north central part of Yangon where the trial will be held to the offices of Eleven Media Group and The Voice Daily.
'Misuse of law'
Last November, Than Htut Aung, chief executive officer of Eleven Media Group, and Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Daily Eleven newspaper, were jailed over an editorial that accused Phyo Min Thein, chief minister of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, 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.
The editorial appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of Daily Eleven and was posted on Than Htut Aung’s Facebook page, and the two men were charged with defamation under Article 66(d).
“The judicial process is delayed for ordinary people who are charged under Article 66(d), but if someone from the government or military sues someone under the section, the judicial process is very quick to ensure that the accused is arrested, charged and sentenced,” said Myint Kyaw, a member of the Media Council.
“We should point out the unfair judicial process and misuse of law,” he said.
The Media Council replaced an interim Myanmar Press Council set up in 2012 following the lifting of pre-publication censorship under former president Thein Sein.
The new committee will not submit an application to authorities for permission to hold its march on Thursday, said Tha Lun Zaung Htet from the Democratic Voice of Burma, a nonprofit media organization based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which organized the gathering of journalists in Yangon.
“We can be arrested,” he said. “Those who want to participate in this campaign should prepare to be arrested.”
He noted the possibility that the marchers could be charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which imposes criminal penalties on those who conduct protests without government consent, or other sections that carry criminal penalties for violating various restrictions on such assemblies.
Rights groups say the law has been used extensively in recent years to detain peaceful protesters who speak out on matters of public interest.
The journalists will continue the white armband campaign until June 18.
Reporters hit out
Other Myanmar journalists hit out on Monday against Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, with DVB’s Tha Lun Zaung Htet charging that it is an instrument used by powerful figures to bully reporters.
“Reporters and journalists are bullied under Article 66(d),” he said.
“This section has threatened press freedom by 100 percent,” he added.
Sithu Aung Myint, a reporter at the news magazine Frontier Myanmar, said the media can publish articles or news for print media, but they have to be very careful when they publish them online because there is a 100-percent certainty that they will be sued under Article 66(d) if the authorities or military do not like what they write.
Zayar Hlaing, editor of Mawkun, which bills itself as Myanmar's first in-depth and investigative magazine, agreed.
“If they use this act, they can arrest and charge people immediately, and they can’t get out on bail," he said. "It’s what they [the authorities] want to see.”
“They use this Article 66(d) when they are criticized, and it threatens freedom of expression with a chilling effect,” he said.
Reported by Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.