A Myanmar court in Yangon on Friday released a detained satire columnist of an independent newspaper after the publication’s top editor testified that he was solely responsible for an article that allegedly insulted the armed forces under a controversial telecommunications law.
Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of The Voice Daily, and satire columnist Kyaw Zwa Naing, who writes under the pseudonym British Ko Ko Maung, were detained on June 2 and charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after the military complained about a piece they published that mocked a military propaganda film.
The article 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.
The pair’s legal adviser said that British Ko Ko Maung, who wrote the piece, was released because he did not post it on social media.
“The Ministry of Communication said I can’t be charged under the Telecommunications Law because I wrote [the article] for print media,” British Ko Ko Maung said.
“Nobody should be charged under Article 66(d),” he told reporters outside the courthouse. “That article shouldn’t exist, because people who are charged under it have to remain in prison until they receive a sentence.”
The Bahan township court also denied a second request by Kyaw Min Swe to be released on bail, citing his lawyer’s submission of an unofficial medical certificate from a private clinic about his stomach and liver ailments. His next trial date is June 23.
“It is a test of the judicial system” Kyaw Min Swe said. “People have to wait and see how much they can rely on the judicial system.”
The court previously denied a bail request for both men on June 8.
On Friday, the court sent Kyaw Min Swe back to the city's notorious Insein prison, where he will remain until his trial next week.
Rights groups say that government and military officials frequently use Article 66(d) to stifle criticism and free speech.
White armband campaign
About 100 journalists wearing white armbands with “freedom of the press” written on them, protested near the court in Yangon as part of a public awareness campaign about Article 66(d).
The newly formed Committee for the Protection of Journalists also passed out fliers to citizens detailing its position on Article 66(d) and its implications for netizens, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
Journalists formed the 21-member committee and began the white armband campaign called “Freedom of the Press” on June 8 in Yangon when the first court hearing for Kyaw Min Swe and British Ko Ko Maung was scheduled.
They are demanding that the government, parliament, and military abolish the law used to accuse reporters and editors of slander.
Committee member Myo Thu Aung said the group will begin a campaign to collect signatures supporting the abolishment of Article 66(d) and work with civil society organizations on its public awareness efforts
Khun Zaw Oo, a TV correspondent at the Democratic Voice of Burma, said reporters should not be sued or charged with defamation under Article 66(d) for criticizing the government, because that is their job.
“Criticizing the government is the responsibility of the media,” he said. “We shouldn’t be sued or charged with a crime because we criticize. We have media laws, so if we do something wrong, we can be charged under those laws, or the Media Council can mediate the dispute.”
Journalists in the town of Lashio in northern Shan state also have started a campaign against Article 66(d).
Nyein Paing Oo of the Northern Shan State’s Youth Network told reporters Friday that many young people who write articles have been imprisoned after being charged with defamation under Article 66(d).
“This article bans freedom of expression,” he said.
Reported by Thant Sin Oo and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.