Bridge to Prison? Myanmar Journalist Faces Criminal Prosecution For Routine Report

2020-12-23
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Bridge to Prison? Myanmar Journalist Faces Criminal Prosecution For Routine Report Reporter Aung Kyaw Min of the Rakhine State-based Development Media Group (DMG), who faces charges under Article 66(d) of Myanmar's Telecommunications Law that provides for up to two years in prison, Dec. 22, 2020.
Photo: RFA

When journalist Aung Kyaw Min filed a brief story Dec. 11 about the need for repairs on a wooden bridge in Maungdaw township of western state of Rakhine, the road engineer responsible didn’t like it.

The engineer, Maung Win, didn’t register his disapproval with a simple letter to the editor – the standard right of reply that is a pillar of the fourth estate in a democracy. He took the scorched-earth approach often preferred by Myanmar authorities to intimidate journalists.

He filed a defamation case with police against the reporter under much-cited Article 66 (d) the Telecommunications Law that provides for up to two years in prison for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or [threat] to any person by using a telecommunications network.” 

Local police say they are investigating the complaint. Meanwhile, Aung Kyaw Min’s employer, the Rakhine State-based Development Media Group, or DMG, has called on the government-backed Myanmar Press Council to mediate in the case to settle the matter outside the courts.

It’s not an isolated case. Rather, it’s an object lesson in how straightforward reporting can put a reporter at legal peril– this in a country which just last month marked another landmark in its transition to democracy when it held its second national election in five years.

But despite the Southeast Asian nation’s historic shift from decades of direct military rule, vaguely worded, junta-era laws remain on the books and are frequently used by civilian and military authorities -- and private citizens – to push back against criticism in the press.

According to a May 2020 report by Myanmar free speech watchdog Athan (Voice), 67 media personnel and journalists are currently targeted in free speech lawsuits, mostly under Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law. Of those cases, 31 were brought by the government and 11 by the military.

Aung Kyaw Min’s case appears particularly harsh given that the complainant, Maung Win, who works for the government’s Roads and Bridges Taskforce No 4, got the biggest say in the six-paragraph-long story he’s complaining about.

He’s quoted saying that the bridge in question has been built three times, using up about 30 tons of timber, and that it would be fixed again. The only other person quoted in the story was a local driver who complained about the condition of the bridge, which serves about 100 villages. The driver called for it to be repaired as soon as possible.

“We have reported about the people’s struggles,” Aung Kyaw Min told RFA. “The bridge has been wrecked for three or four years. We have asked them how they would fix it. I reported exactly as they answered the question in the interview. That’s it.”

Reporter Aung Kyaw Min of the Rakhine State-based Development Media Group (DMG), Dec. 22, 2020.
Reporter Aung Kyaw Min of the Rakhine State-based Development Media Group (DMG), Dec. 22, 2020.
Press council ignored

He said the police has confiscated his cellphone and the plaintiff’s. An officer at Maungdaw police station, who was not authorized to speak to media and requested anonymity, confirmed they were investigating the case.

RFA repeatedly tried to contact Maung Win to ask why he considered the DMG report to be defamatory but his phone appeared to be turned off – perhaps because it was in the hands of police.

But Nay Aung Ye Myint, director general of the Ministry of Construction’s Bridge Department, contended that DMG’s coverage “has distorted the real situation. We have demanded for a clarification. Since they didn’t comply, it has led to the lawsuit.”

DMG’s chief editor Aung Min Oo decried the lawsuit, which was filed despite a provision of the News Media Law that complaints against news media should first be brought to the Myanmar Press Council for mediation.

“In our reporting, we have tried as best as we can to comply with media ethics, existing laws and the News Media Law. Now, they are filing a lawsuit against us despite all our efforts,” Aung Min Oo said.

The DMG sought the council’s intervention on Dec. 14, and the council told RFA it had written to the Rakhine State government urging them to suspend the lawsuit.

“So far, we haven’t got any response,” said council secretary Kyaw Swa Min.

Aung Hla Tun, deputy minister of Information, also recommended that if someone has a grievance about media coverage, “they should accept MPC’s mediation first before they go to court.”

The wooden bridge in Rakhine state's Maungdaw township that was the focus of a brief report that landed DMG reporter Aung Kyaw Min in court under controversial Article 66 (d) of Myanmar's Telecommunications Law.
The wooden bridge in Rakhine state's Maungdaw township that was the focus of a brief report that landed DMG reporter Aung Kyaw Min in court under controversial Article 66 (d) of Myanmar's Telecommunications Law.
Challenges in Rakhine state

That advice often seems to fall on deaf ears – particularly when it pertains to news in Rakhine State, which has seen highest number of free speech lawsuits of any state in Myanmar, according to the Athan report.

RFA itself has sometimes been investigated by police for its coverage of the Rakhine conflict, but media based in the state, like DMG, have particularly fallen afoul of authorities in the past two years.

DMG’s chief editor Aung Min Oo has been in hiding since charges were filed against him in May 2019 under the Unlawful Association Act for its coverage of fighting between the rebel Arakan Army and the government military. The conflict has displaced 200,000 people in the past two years, and caused hundreds of civilian casualties.

DMG, which was established in 2012, has stopped publishing its bimonthly journal for a year. It has been waiting for nearly two years for the government to renew its license.

DMG continues to publish news online, although accessing its content, particularly in northern Rakhine State where the fighting is heaviest, is difficult, because of restrictions on Internet access imposed by authorities.

Since March, the military-backed Mytel mobile network, and the state-run Myanma Posts and Telecommunications have blocked access to DMG’s website and that of Narinjara News, another local outlet that closely reports the conflict.

Yin Yadanar Thein, director of the advocacy group, Free Myanmar Expression, said the government is using “many forms of threats -- legal, physical or technological -- to intimidate the press.”

But reporter Aung Kyaw Min says he’s undeterred.

“They are trying to instill fear in us to avoid the coverage of the problems in the region,” he said. “But that will only hurt local people. So we will keep reporting and will confront everything.”

Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Matthew Pennington.

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