Myanmar journalist sued by Buddhist hardliners gets bail

Swe Win (centre), the editor of Myanmar Now, is escorted to a court by police in Mandalay on July 31, 2017.
Swe Win (centre), the editor of Myanmar Now, is escorted to a court by police in Mandalay on July 31, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MANDALAY, Myanmar (AFP) - One of Myanmar's most prominent investigative journalists was granted bail on Monday (July 31) after being charged with insulting a Buddhist monk who praised the killer of a Muslim government lawyer.

Police detained Swe Win at Yangon airport on Sunday evening as he tried to fly to Bangkok, claiming that he might evade a defamation charge levelled against him earlier this year.

He has been sued by supporters of the hardline Ma Ba Tha movement for posting an article on Facebook quoting a Buddhist abbot who said firebrand preacher Wirathu should be expelled from the monkhood.

Wirathu, who has been dubbed the "face of Buddhist terror" for his anti-Muslim diatribes, caused outrage when he publicly praised a man who shot respected Muslim government lawyer Ko Ni earlier this year.

Swe Win was granted bail on Monday in the central city of Mandalay, where the charges were filed.

"He got the bail from the court today," his lawyer Khin Maung Myint told AFP, adding he would next appear on Aug 7.

Speaking outside the court Swe Win, the editor of the Myanmar Now news agency, ridiculed the case.

"The person who sued me for this case is a member of Ma Ba Tha, but Ma Ba Tha is not even an official organisation," he told reporters, referencing a recent ruling by Myanmar's top ecclesiastical body ordering the hardline group to disband.

He is the latest casualty of a controversial law that has been increasingly used against journalists since Myanmar's first elected government for generations took power last year.

Hopes had been high that the new government of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi would usher in an era of free speech when they took power last year after half a century of military rule.

But defamation prosecutions have soared since her party came to power, increasingly targeting social media satirists, activists and journalists.

Under the broadly worded article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, anyone convicted of "restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing (or) causing undue influence" online faces up to three years in jail.

Facing public outcry, the government has proposed changes to the law, including allowing judges to grant bail and forbidding third parties from bringing cases.

But critics say the changes, which also include dropping the need for government approval to bring cases, could make the law even worse.

Swe Win is the fourth Myanmar reporter to be detained in a month after three others were arrested for covering an armed insurgent group.

Another prominent journalist, Kyaw Min Swe, an editor at the Voice journal, is also facing charges under 66(d) for an article satirising the military.