By NAW BETTY HAN, THOMPSON CHAU
Two local reporters accused of breaking Myanmar’s “draconian” secrecy law for their investigation of the Rakhine crisis are now charged by a court. Rights groups said the ruling deals a “hammer blow” to press freedom in the country, is a “black day” for all journalists and reporters working here, and has thrown serious doubt on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
On Monday, Yangon district judge Ye Lwin decided to allow the Reuters case to proceed to trial, setting a first court date for July 16. Section 253(1) of Myanmar’s Code of Criminal Procedure requires a judge to dismiss charges against accused persons if the evidence presented fails to warrant a conviction. A motion for charges to be dismissed on this basis, submitted by defence lawyers, was effectively rejected by the decision on Monday.
By ELI MEIXLER
Myanmar sought charges Wednesday against two Reuters journalists who stand accused of breaching the state secrets act, in a case that has renewed fears about press freedom in the country.
Reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on Dec. 12 for allegedly “illegally obtaining and possessing…important and secret government documents,” Myanmar’s Ministry of Information quoted police as saying. The reporters had met two police officers for dinner on the outskirts of Yangon, the country’s largest city, where they were handed documents believed to pertain to military operations against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
Prosecutors filed charges against the two journalists under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, an obscure law dating from 1923, under which they face up to 14 years in prison. Wednesday’s hearing was their second court appearance since being arrested almost one month ago. The reporters had been held incommunicado at an undisclosed location by police for several weeks following their arrest, raising concerns that they had become victims of enforced disappearance. The court extended their custody at an initial hearing on Dec. 27 while their charges were investigated.
The reporters later told relatives that they were detained almost immediately after receiving the documents, Reuters reported. Senior representatives of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy Party (NLD), whose government does not control the country’s police or military, have suggested that the reporters were set up.
“They arrested us and took action against us because we were trying to reveal the truth,” Wa Lone said following the hearing, which lasted about 30-minutes, according to Reuters.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s arrest and prosecution has been met with wide-ranging condemnation from rights groups and political figures. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said the charges were a “travesty of justice” and called on Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor and de facto head of state, to “quickly reform this antiquated colonial law.”
“The prosecution of these two journalist shows both the government’s contempt for freedom of the press and a fundamental failure to understand what journalists’ jobs are all about,” he told TIME. “These two men should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
In November, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded the journalists’ “immediate release or information as to the circumstances around their disappearance,” while E.U. representative to Myanmar Kristian Schmidt warned that their prosecution“amounts to a series intimidation against journalists” in Myanmar. “Journalists should … be able to work in a free and enabling environment without fear of intimidation or undue arrest or prosecution,” he said on Monday.
Former President Bill Clinton also commented on the case in a Twitter post on Tuesday, saying “the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable.”
Reuters president and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling. “We view this as a wholly unwarranted, blatant attack on press freedom. Our colleagues should be allowed to return to their jobs reporting on events in Myanmar,” he said.
The case has also renewed concerns about the state of press freedom in Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government has employed colonial-era legislation, previously wielded by the country’s notorious military junta, to silence critics and intimidate journalists. Last month, Myanmar released two foreign journalists and their two local staffers, who had served two months in prison under the 1934 Aircraft Act for filming with a drone in Naypyitaw, the country’s capital.
Published on TIME on January 10, 2018
More than 100 Myanmar journalists gathered on Tuesday in Yangon to call on the government to drop lawsuits filed against reporters under controversial Article 66(d) of the country's Telecommunications Law frequently used by those in powerful positions to silence their critics.
They formed a 21-member Committee for the Protection of Journalists to demand that the government, parliament, and the military abolish the law used to accuse reporters and editors of slander, the group said in a statement issued during their meeting.
They also urged civil society organizations to join in their efforts to eliminate legal statutes that threaten freedom of the press.
Committee members said the journalists will begin a white armband campaign called “Freedom of the Press” on Thursday when a court hearing for two detained staffers of the publication The Voice Daily is scheduled.
The newspaper's editor Kyaw Min Swe and satire columnist Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing, who writes under the pseudonym British Ko Ko Maung, were charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after the armed forces complained about a piece they published that mocked a military propaganda film.
Article 66(d) prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people, and violators are subject to a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine.
The group will march from the Bahan courthouse in the north central part of Yangon where the trial will be held to the offices of Eleven Media Group and The Voice Daily.
'Misuse of law'
Last November, Than Htut Aung, chief executive officer of Eleven Media Group, and Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Daily Eleven newspaper, were jailed over an editorial that accused Phyo Min Thein, chief minister of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, of receiving a U.S. $100,000 watch from an unnamed drug tycoon who was later awarded a lucrative contract for a city transit project.
The editorial appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of Daily Eleven and was posted on Than Htut Aung’s Facebook page, and the two men were charged with defamation under Article 66(d).
“The judicial process is delayed for ordinary people who are charged under Article 66(d), but if someone from the government or military sues someone under the section, the judicial process is very quick to ensure that the accused is arrested, charged and sentenced,” said Myint Kyaw, a member of the Media Council.
“We should point out the unfair judicial process and misuse of law,” he said.
The Media Council replaced an interim Myanmar Press Council set up in 2012 following the lifting of pre-publication censorship under former president Thein Sein.
The new committee will not submit an application to authorities for permission to hold its march on Thursday, said Tha Lun Zaung Htet from the Democratic Voice of Burma, a nonprofit media organization based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which organized the gathering of journalists in Yangon.
“We can be arrested,” he said. “Those who want to participate in this campaign should prepare to be arrested.”
He noted the possibility that the marchers could be charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which imposes criminal penalties on those who conduct protests without government consent, or other sections that carry criminal penalties for violating various restrictions on such assemblies.
Rights groups say the law has been used extensively in recent years to detain peaceful protesters who speak out on matters of public interest.
The journalists will continue the white armband campaign until June 18.
Reporters hit out
Other Myanmar journalists hit out on Monday against Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, with DVB’s Tha Lun Zaung Htet charging that it is an instrument used by powerful figures to bully reporters.
“Reporters and journalists are bullied under Article 66(d),” he said.
“This section has threatened press freedom by 100 percent,” he added.
Sithu Aung Myint, a reporter at the news magazine Frontier Myanmar, said the media can publish articles or news for print media, but they have to be very careful when they publish them online because there is a 100-percent certainty that they will be sued under Article 66(d) if the authorities or military do not like what they write.
Zayar Hlaing, editor of Mawkun, which bills itself as Myanmar's first in-depth and investigative magazine, agreed.
“If they use this act, they can arrest and charge people immediately, and they can’t get out on bail," he said. "It’s what they [the authorities] want to see.”
“They use this Article 66(d) when they are criticized, and it threatens freedom of expression with a chilling effect,” he said.
Published on Radio Free Asia on June 6, 2017.
A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person's race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation.
Source: Cornell University Law School