Independent Newspaper Editor, Satirist Detained in Myanmar After Army Lawsuit

An independent Myanmar newspaper editor and its satire columnist were detained on Friday over an article that allegedly insulted the armed forces, in the latest application of controversial telecommunications law attack experts say curbs free speech in the democratizing 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," were detained 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.

"Police came and took us to Bahan Police Station in the afternoon," Kyaw Min Swe told RFA's Myanmar Service.

"They said we won’t be arrested and they just need to ask us about three questions. But when we got to the police station, they said they will not release us," he said.

The military filed the charges on May 17 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.

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.

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.

Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert.