A Myanmar court released on bail on Friday a newspaper editor detained on defamation charges under a controversial statute, after having rejected nine previous bail requests since he was charged in June, his lawyer said.
Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper The Voice Daily, was charged under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after a Myanmar army officer filed a suit against him and the paper’s satire columnist Kyaw Zwa Naing in Yangon’s Bahan township on May 17.
Section 66(d) 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.
Both men were also charged with defamation for publishing a satirical piece mocking the military under Section 25(b) of the Media Law, which carries a fine of 300,000-1 million kyats (U.S. $217-U.S. $724) for media workers found guilty of violating professional responsibilities and codes of conduct, including writing news in a manner that deliberately harms the reputation of an individual or organization.
“Kyaw Min Swe was granted bail by Bahan township court in Yangon for 22 million kyats (U.S. $16,000),” including 20 million kyats (U.S. 14,500) for [the charge] under Section 66(d) and 2 million kyats (U.S. $1,450) under the Media Law, said attorney Khin Maung Aye who is representing Kyaw Min Swe.
Despite pressure from domestic and international rights groups, journalists, and diplomats, Myanmar’s upper house of parliament on Wednesday passed only minor reforms to the Telecommunications Law, including allowing bail for suspects and preventing third parties from filing cases, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported.
A proposal to eliminate jail sentences for defamatory social media posts was voted down 92-59 in the upper house, dominated by lawmakers from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party, the report said.
The lower house is expected to vote on the amendment next week, according to Myanmar’s Mizzima news service.
After he was granted bail, Kyaw Min Swe said defamation lawsuits are not acceptable under the civilian government of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We have had a military government, a quasi-military government, and [now] a civilian government,” Kyaw Min Swe said.
“We can understand if we are charged under such unfair statutes by a military government, though we don’t agree with it,” he said. “But it’s not suitable to be sued under these charges when we have a democratic government or civilian one, especially during the current time.”
“I had a lot of hope for this government and parliament, but my hope has faded,” Kyaw Min Swe said.
“The Media Law is not yet effective because the authorities have not followed it and are just using statutes to put the journalists behind bars right away as soon as a case against them is filed,” he said. “It is unfitting for the [country’s] democratic transition.”
Charges under Section 66(d) were dropped against Kyaw Zwa Naing on June 16 after Kyaw Min Swe testified that he was solely responsible for posting on social media the satirical article that allegedly insulted the armed forces by mocking a military propaganda film.
Kyaw Zwa Naing was released on 2 million kyats (U.S. $1,448) bail for the charge brought against him under Section 25(b) of the Media Law.
Three others denied bail
In a related development, a court in the town of Thibaw in northeastern Shan state denied bail to three journalists from independent, domestic news outlets accused of violating a statute of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, their lawyers said.
The three journalists — Lawi Weng of the online journal The Irrawaddy and Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) — 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.
They have been charged under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for being involved with an unlawful organization and face up to three years in prison if convicted.
“The judge gave us three reasons for rejecting the bail requests — the accused are not from this area, the court is still hearing the plaintiff’s testimony, and the court still has to hear from many witnesses,” said attorney Shwe Moe Nyunt who is representing the DVB journalists.
On July 28, the plaintiff, Captain Thet Naing Oo from the Myanmar army’s Infantry Unit 503, submitted video files of TNLA’s drug-burning ceremony confiscated from the detained reporters’ cameras as evidence.
He provided additional testimony again at Friday’s hearing, which was the fourth time that the journalists have appeared in court.
Their next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 11.
Reported by Kan Thar and Thant Sin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.