A court in southern Myanmar’s Mon state on Wednesday sentenced two local reporters to two months each in prison, according to an editor of the newspaper they work for, marking the first jailing of a journalist on charges of slander in the country in more than 100 years.
The Myanmar Post’s chief editor Thein Ktike and deputy-chief reporter San Moe Tun were sentenced by the Moulmein township court for “defamation” under Article 500 of the country’s penal code, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison, said fellow editor Zin Thaw Naing.
“Military lawmaker Maj. Thein Zaw [of the Mon state legislature] sued them over a news article published in January 2014 and they were charged in February that year,” he said, noting that their trial had lasted more than one year.
“They were sentenced to two months [each] in prison this afternoon. In my opinion, the legislative branch forced the judiciary to charge them.”
Zin Thaw Naing did not elaborate on why he believed the court had been pressured to act against the two journalists, but told the Eleven media group that the newspaper planned to appeal the sentences at the regional level.
According to the report, the sentencing marks the first time journalists have been jailed on defamation charges in Myanmar in more than 100 years, including throughout five decades of military rule that ended in 2011 when power was handed to President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.
Cases in which journalists were charged with Article 500—which stems from Myanmar’s British colonial period—have been settled with fines, Eleven said.
The Myanmar Post published an article on Jan. 29, 2014 based on an interview with Thein Zaw by freelance journalist Zaw Min Oo titled: “A Military Parliamentary Representative Says They Have to Take Seats in Parliament Because of Low Educational Standards.”
Thein Zein’s lawyer filed a complaint of defamation against Thein Ktike and San Moe Tun, and called Zaw Min Oo as a witness in the case, the Irrawaddy online journal reported, citing Tun Aung, the attorney for the convicted chief editor and deputy-chief reporter.
Tun Aung told the Irrawaddy that Zaw Min Oo, who is also known by his pen-name Thalwin Maung Maung, testified that he had recorded the audio of the interview, wrote the story, and sent it by email, which he also presented to the court.
Zaw Min Oo, who testified at the plaintiff’s request, was not included as a defendant in the complaint.
On Monday, The Myanmar Post published a black cover edition to show its support for a campaign to temporarily boycott government press events, following a violent police crackdown on a student protest last week, which also saw reporters and photographers targeted.
While Myanmar has enjoyed significant democratic reforms since Thein Sein came to power, including increased media freedoms, his administration jailed 10 journalists in 2014, while 19 others are facing trials.
The Committee to Protect Journalists placed Myanmar on its list of the world’s top 10 worst jailers of journalists in 2014.
Reported by Pyone Moh Moh Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.