Actions against the press in 2018
In the most high profile case against journalists in 2018 the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were prosecuted and sentenced to seven years imprisonment with hard labour on 3 September 2018 for breaking the Official Secrets Act.
The two reporters had been working on a story about the killing of Rohingyas by Myanmar Army soldiers.
Rather than being sentenced under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications law, which until this year was the law most journalists were prosecuted under, the two journalists were sentenced under the colonial-era law. The impartiality of the court was brought into question by many observers as the men were still convicted despite evidence and witness testimony showing that they had been set up by the police.
Dan Chugg, the British ambassador to Myanmar recently said of the convictions: “Freedom of expression and rule of law are fundamental in a democracy, and this case has passed a long shadow over both today. The judge has appeared to have ignored evidence and to have ignored Myanmar law. This has dealt a hammer blow for the rule of law.”
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s protestations that the Rule of Law had been properly followed it was clear to all observers and other journalists that the pair had been prosecuted because the army did not want their illegal actions to be exposed to the public. This has created an even greater climate of fear and self-censorship among journalists.
Those fears had been reinforced earlier in the year when the Myanmar Army Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, gave journalists the chilling warning “to think twice before writing or publishing about the Tatmadaw” during a speech he gave on Armed Forces Day, 27 March 2018.
Other notable prosecutions of journalists in 2018 have included Ngar Min Swe who was prosecuted under the law on sedition, another obscure colonial law and sentenced to seven years imprisonment two weeks after the Reuters journalists were sentenced.
Previously he used to write for the pro-government, state-funded newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar. He was prosecuted for a disparaging remark he made about Aung San Suu Kyi on Facebook. It was just the latest in a long list of critical comments Ngar Min Swe, who is close to the former military government, had made about Aung San Suu Kyi.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) an organisation that promotes and defends freedom of the press around the world said that it believed that Ngar Min Swe was convicted as a goodwill gesture to the international community to help repair Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation following its harsh criticism of the Reuters journalists convictions.
“However unacceptable the conviction of the two Reuters reporters may be, the sentence imposed on the columnist Ngar Min Swe is totally disproportionate,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“His posts hostile to Aung San Suu Kyi’s reform movement may have been questionable, but the sentence he has received sets a worrying precedent. It raises serious doubts about the independence of the judicial system in Myanmar. For this reason, we are requesting an immediate review of the charges against him. Above all, it is high time the government repealed the archaic law on sedition that was used to convict him.”
Another case of journalists being threatened with prosecution were the charges brought against Eleven Media group managing editors Kyaw Zaw Linn and Phyo Wai Win and chief reporter Nayi Min after they published an article on 8 October 2018 in the Weekly Eleven News Journal outlining how officials, including the Yangon region’s chief minister Phyo Min Thein a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, had allegedly mismanaged public funds.
The prosecution was bought by Aung Kyaw Khine, the director of the Yangon regional government who claimed the article damaged the dignity of the Yangon government. The journalists were charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, another vaguely-worded law that prohibits the publication or circulation of any statement, rumour, or report with intent to cause “fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or against the public tranquillity.” They face a sentence of up to two years in prison if found guilty.
After Myanmar President Win Myint called on the Yangon Government to seek redress through the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) rather than the courts the journalists were released on bail two weeks after being charged. They have already met with the MPC several times to explain why they wrote what they did and as of the beginning of December, the Yangon Regional Government had not responded to the MPC who were still waiting to be invited to the government’s office.
Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein has said the government will not drop the prosecution, as the president asked unless the journalists publish a public apology and say what they wrote was incorrect.
The journalists are adamant that what they wrote is correct and are refusing to bow to the pressure and retract what they said, even though they face the possibility of jail time.
In another case of concern, the Myanmar government did not resort to the courts but put a ban in place. On 12 June, content from the US government-funded Radio Free Asia was banned from being broadcast on any Myanmar radio stations because the media organization refused to stop using the word Rohingya.
Protestors in Hong Kong call for the release of the two jailed Reuters reporters. Photo: EPA