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Criminal case against IFEX member Mizzima News must be dismissed

The IFEX network calls on the Attorney General of Myanmar to immediately dismiss the criminal case being brought against staff of the IFEX member organisation Mizzima News in favour of dispute resolution mechanisms provided for by national law. The next hearing for the case will take place on 6 August 2016.

Mizzima Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director Soe Myint
Mizzima Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director Soe Myint

Soe Myint

To:

Mr. Tun Tun Oo
Attorney General of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar

5 July 2016

Your Excellency,

IFEX, the global network of 104 organisations working to promote and defend freedom of expression worldwide, writes to you to express our objection over the criminal case being brought against several staff of the IFEX member organisation Mizzima News, including columnist Sithu Aung Myint, Mizzima Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director Soe Myint and the editor-in-charge of Mizzima's Myanmar edition, Myo Thant.

IFEX is concerned about the heavy penalty that individuals from this organisation face for an opinion column criticising rival media outlet Eleven Media's coverage of a government-backed organisation involved in the peace process between the armed forces and ethnic rebel groups. The case is being tried under the Electronic Transactions Law, a law established for the prosecution of criminal activity online. Instead, the case should be pursued according to Myanmar's News Media Law, which was created precisely for disputes such as this.

The News Media Law provides a venue for grievances to be aired and disputes mediated by the National Press Council before being referred to the courts. This allows for media groups to continue playing their role as a public watchdog, while still providing a venue for credible complaints to be heard against them. According to Mizzima News, the National Press Council should have been the body where the complaint was first brought. Instead, police referred the case to the Minister of Transport; a ministry the organisation says has little involvement in media affairs, which then approved the criminal proceedings.

This recent lawsuit against Mizzima News is part of a government trend of using both newly created and repressive laws leftover from the military junta and colonial era to prosecute peaceful expression and activism, often through allegations of defamation or contempt. The penalties for such criminal charges are disproportionate to whatever reputational harm might be incurred by the aggrieved party, and are likely to lead to self-censorship on controversial issues.

If these individuals are prosecuted under the Electronic Transactions Law, it could set a dangerous precedent that creates a chilling effect based on the increased costs of practicing free speech, including prison time, crushing legal fees, and restrictions on travel and employment.

Accordingly, IFEX calls on the Attorney-General of Myanmar to immediately dismiss the case under the Electronic Transactions Law and recommend that it instead be adjudicated by the Myanmar Press Council under the News Media Law. Such a step would be more attuned to the democratic transition that Myanmar aspires towards.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

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