Myanmar Military Files Defamation Lawsuit Against Independent Newspaper

UPDATED at 10:05 A.M. EST on 2017-05-18

Myanmar’s powerful military filed a defamation lawsuit on Wednesday against a local independent newspaper editor and its satire columnist over an article that allegedly insulted the armed forces in the latest attack on freedom of speech in the developing Southeast Asian country.

Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of The Voice Daily, and the newspaper’s satire columnist who writes under the pseudonym "British Ko Ko Maung," are being sued under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people. Violators are subject to a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine.

Government, military, and other officials are increasingly using the controversial law to file defamation suits against their critics under the current civilian administration of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which came to power in April 2016.

The military filed the charges at Bahan Township Police Station in the commercial capital Yangon, citing alleged defamation over an article the newspaper published in late March.

British Ko Ko Maung had written a piece entitled “Oath of the Nation of Bullets” that mocked “Union Oath,” a military propaganda film that aired on the military-owned Myawaddy TV channel to coincide with Armed Forces Day on March 27.

“I will face, according to law, whatever may come because I wrote what I believe,” British Ko Ko Maung said.

Lieutenant Colonel Tun Tun Oo of the Yangon regional command initially filed a complaint with the Myanmar Press Council charging that the piece offended the dignity of the armed forces, according to a report by the online news agency Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). The council mediates disputes involving the press.

The Voice Daily issued an apology on May 14.

Kyaw Min Swe said he has not yet discussed the lawsuit with the board of editors, but will comment on it after meeting with the Myanmar Press Council, DVB reported.

The military, which previously ruled Myanmar for 50 years and continues to wield enormous political and economic power, has filed similar complaints about articles critical of it in the past. It settled the cases out of court when the publications offered a formal apology or published a correction, DVB reported.

Rights groups argue that the defamation provision of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law has been used to silence criticism of the government, military, and Buddhist leaders, and should be dropped.

The new case brings the number of people who have been charged under Article 66(d) to 56 under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. So far, seven of them have been sentenced to jail.

During the previous military-backed government of former president Thein Sein, only seven people were charged under Article 66(d), and five of them received prison sentences.

Global Witness film banned

In a related development, a hotel in Yangon on Wednesday abruptly banned a screening of a short documentary film entitled “Jade and the Generals” that exposes the links between armed conflict and the lucrative jade industry in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state.

The film produced by the London-based environmental advocacy group Global Witness had been scheduled for a public screening at the Park Royal Hotel when hotel employees canceled it after authorities informed them that the organizers had not received permission from the Yangon government to show the film.

“I want all documentary films to be screened freely in the future,” said Htoo Tayzar, the film’s director.

Myanmar’s U.S. $31 billion jade industry is secretly controlled by networks of military elites, drug lords, and crony companies linked to the country’s former military leaders, according to a Global Witness report issued in October 2015.

The industry is also connected to fighting between ethnic armed groups and the national military in Kachin state where clashes have forced about 100,000 people to flee to safety, Global Witness said.

Both reap huge amounts of money from mining activities through extortion and the collection of taxes, the group said.

Thai faces defamation charge

Also on Wednesday, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and more than 50 other press freedom advocacy groups urged a Thai-owned mining company to drop criminal defamation charges against a Thai journalist who reported on problems inside the concern’s Heinda mine which operates in Myanmar.

On March 20, mining company Myanmar Phongpipat Co., Ltd. (MPC) sued journalist Pratch Rujivanarom of The Nation for defamation under the Thai Criminal Code and Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act, which carries a prison sentence for a variety of offences, including disseminating data likely to cause damage to a third party or the public.

“We, the undersigned organizations, urge the Myanmar Phongpipat Co. Ltd. to immediately withdraw all criminal proceedings against Pratch Rujivanarong, journalist, and the Nation News Network Co., Ltd.,” said a joint statement issued by RSF and the other groups.

The mining firm claims that the reporter and The Nation damaged its reputation when they reported on tailings from the tin mine contaminating a river system, which is the main source of drinking water for villagers in Myaung Pyo village in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region.

“The water color has changed to red and black,” villager Myaung Pyo told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Others confirmed that the mining operation has damaged the environment.

“It’s true that there has been much environmental deterioration in many villages around the mining areas,” said Aung Lwin of Dawei Watch, a news service that gives a voice to minorities in Myanmar. “Also, researchers from a Thai university already informed the Thai Human Rights Commission that the mine had contaminated the river and water supply of Myaung Pyo village.”

Pratch and The Nation face up to five year’s imprisonment, 200,000 Thai baht (U.S. $5,800) in fines, or both.

RSF and the other civil society organizations also called on Thailand to immediately decriminalize defamation and reject proposed amendments to the 2007 Computer Crime Act that have raised human rights concerns.

“We urge the Thai government to protect freedom of the press, decriminalize defamation, and align the 2007 Computer-related Crime Act with international law and standards, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” the statement said.

“The complaints and charges against Pratch Rujivanarom and The Nation represent an overly broad application of criminal law which violates the right to freedom of expression,” it said. “Criminalizing free expression creates a chilling effect on the media and human rights defenders whose reporting, not least of environmental and human rights issues, essentially serves the public interest.”

Reported by Thet Su Aung, Thant Sin Oo and Aung Tayza for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin