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Burmese government using new Media Law to stifle criticism

Burma's Ministry of Information is pursuing legal action against the
Burma's Ministry of Information is pursuing legal action against the "Myanmar Thandawsint" (Myanmar Herald) for the paper's scathing commentary about the words of President Thein Sein

Myanmar Thandawsint/Facebook

This statement was originally published on seapa.org on 13 November 2014.

SEAPA views with utmost concern the latest move of the Ministry of Information (MOI) in Myanmar to pursue legal action against the Myanmar Thandawsint (Myanmar Herald) using the new Media Law for publishing scathing commentary about the words of President Thein Sein.

The MOI is suing the paper for publishing on 9 October 2014 an interview with an opposition leader who described Thein Sein's words as "nonsensical, absurd and insane."

There is no information whether the Ministry is also suing the person interviewed by Myanmar Thandawsint. Instead, the MOI named 11 Myanmar Thandawsint staff members as respondents to the legal notice served on 5 November.

The paper is being sued under section 25b of the 2014 Media Law, which imposes a fine of between 300,000 to 1 million kyat (approximately 290 to 980 US dollars) for violating the code of conduct outlined in section 9g of the law.

Specifically, section 9g instructs journalists to avoid writing in a style which deliberately affects the reputation of a person or organizations or generates negative impact to human rights. Such breaches carry the higher penalty under the Media Law, although jail terms for such offences were removed when the law was passed.

Immature move

If the case is upheld by the court, the paper stands to pay a relatively small fine for the offence. However, the move is a fundamentally insidious attempt to silence the media from covering legitimate criticism of public officials.

Myanmar Thandawsint published criticism from a leader of the opposition party on the pronouncements of the President. It was not U Thein Sein who was criticised personally, but the strong words of disapproval were directed at the policies that the President spoke of.

In an environment with real press freedom, publishing these comments is par for the course, and part of media's role to stimulate public debate about governance. It should not have even been submitted to the Interim Press Council for mediation.

Such a move by the MOI is not only immature and ill-thought out, but is also ultimately threatening for the media in Myanmar as it is sending the message that the President should be exempt from criticism. It sends a strong signal to the media to self-censor their coverage of similar criticism.

This move reinforces the conviction earlier this year of journalists and the publisher of Unity Journal for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons factory run by the military. With the lawsuit against Myanmar Thandawsint, criticism of the President represents a second off-limits topic, after the military. The MOI is drawing another line for the press and the public to stay out of.

Fundamental flaw

The case exposes one of the key flaws of the Media Law, which was passed by Parliament in April 2014.

Hiding behind the language of protection of the reputation and human rights of a person, Section 9g in effect imposes anti-defamation restrictions on journalists in the country. Similarly, a prohibition on writing that inflames conflicts regarding nationality, race and religion is also present (section 9h).

But while a reasonable interpretation of these sections is possible, the MOI move amply demonstrates that, given enough power and influence, the law could be used as a weapon to silence media.

The Ministry has used the first excuse to set the tone of a narrow, restrictive interpretation of the law; instead of emphasizing the unprecedented rights given by the Media Law to the media, which could have been a stark departure from the repressive Printing and Publishers Registration Act of 1962.

The Ministry even refused an offer of redress - an apology - from Myanmar Thandawsint, and responded with the lawsuit.

Killing condemned

This lawsuit comes on the heels of the killing of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing (a.k.a. Par Gyi) while in military custody. Aung Kyaw Naing was reported by Army officials to have been killed "while attempting to escape" from his military captors.

Circumstances, surrounding his arbitrary arrest by soldiers are still unclear, since officials have denied having him in custody earlier. Later a 23 October notice from the Army informed the media later of his death after 'trying to seize a gun from the guard and running away'.

Aung Kyaw Naing went to Mon State in eastern Burma to cover renewed hostilities between ethnic Karen rebels and the Burma Army. As a freelance reporter he has been actively covering the peace process.

SEAPA joins calls for an impartial investigation of the killing of Aung Kyaw Naing. His killing represents a test of the accountability of the military for such acts and the resolve of the government to protect journalists.

These recent alarming incidents this year - the lawsuits against Unity Journal, Bi Mon Te Nay journal and Myanmar Thandawsint, and the killing of Aung Kyaw Naing - indicate that media freedom in the country has been short-lived, and earlier praise heaped on the government for easing restrictions, is premature. The spectre left behind by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, which oversaw the implementation of the 1962 press law, has now dispersed among several entities, which enjoy impunity for acts that suppress the media.

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