Myanmar President Win Myint on Wednesday issued a directive to the Yangon regional government to cooperate with the country's press council to resolve a lawsuit an official filed against three Eleven Media Group journalists accusing them of committing offenses against the state, amid growing disapproval over attacks on freedom of expression.
A letter of instruction signed by Zaw Thin, permanent secretary of the union government, and sent to officials in the commercial city has been widely circulated on Facebook.
The directive said Yangon officials should file a complaint about the case with the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) in accordance with the country’s Media Law, cooperate with the MPC on the case, and then take the case to court if the MPC fails to address it.
Regional government director Aung Kyaw Khine filed the lawsuit on Oct. 9 at Tamwe township police station on incitement charges, and the trio was arrested the next day and immediately taken to court.
Aung Kyaw Khine has contacted the MPC about the case and about taking action against the three journalists because he says an article written by chief reporter Phyo Wai Win and published in the Weekly Eleven News Journal on Oct. 8 damaged the dignity of the Yangon regional government.
The article charged that Yangon government officials mismanaged public funds through business dealings by the region’s 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.
Yangon government officials have said that the report is false, while the reporters have said they stand behind the story.
Government spokesman Zaw Htay told RFA that Win Myint issued the directive after the Yangon regional government consulted the Union government on the matter, and union government officials asked the president for a recommendation as to how the case should be handled.
When RFA’s Myanmar Service contacted the Union Government Office, an official there refused to comment on the case, though he confirmed that the president issued the instructions that have been circulating on social media.
Withdraw court case first
Kyaw Zwa Min, secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, told RFA that Aung Kyaw Khine has visited the council's office to discuss taking action against the three journalists for allegedly violating four articles of the Media Law.
“We told him that, according to the Media Law, the Yangon regional government must withdraw the case from the court first if it wants the MPC to mediate or to take action against these three journalists,” he said.
Yangon regional government officials will meet with MPC members on Friday to let them know whether they will drop the court case, Kyaw Zwa Min said.
Phyo Wai Win and managing editors Kyaw Zaw Lin and Nari Min 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.” It carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, a fine, or both with no eligibility for bail.
Kyi Myint, a lawyer who is representing the three journalists, Myanmar’s Deputy Information Minister Aung Hla Tun, and journalist activists said last week that Yangon officials should pursue the case through the MPC under the Media Law, which carries fines for those determined to be guilty of offenses related to their responsibilities and media ethics.
The next court appearance for the three journalists is expected to be on Oct. 26, when Aung Kyaw Khine must produce the original government documents that Phyo Wai Win wrote about in the article, the Associated Press said.
Reported by Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.