Myanmar government urged to immediately released two detained journalists

YANGON (ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Several international media and rights organisations have called on the Myanmar government to immediately release two senior journalists from Eleven Media Group, who were detained on a defamation charge.

On Friday (Nov 11), CEO of Eleven Media Group Dr Than Htut Aung and Chief Editor Wai Phyo went to a district police station and were then taken to court. Later, they were sent to Insein Prison, with the next court hearing due November 25.

Both were charged over a defamation case by the Yangon Region government, whose Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein is himself a former political prisoner and a key member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The case is based on the Facebook posting of an article related the first anniversary of the nation election, which saw the NLD swept to power, but democratic and further development checked by cronyism and corruption.

The article was also translated into English and carried by several members of Asia News Network, an alliance of 20 media in 18 Asian countries, as Eleven Media is a member of the network.

Both Eleven Media journalists were charged under the Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act.

Asia News Network said in a statement that it is the duty of the government to ensure that the law was not used to stifle comment or curb freedom of the press.

It was important, the editors said, for a young democracy to not be perceived as draconian, or as reacting disproportionately to criticism.

While the ANN editors appealed to the authorities in Myanmar and particularly to the State stressing that the law must take its course, the editors felt no useful purpose was served by detaining the two journalists without bail.

On the contrary, such detentions would only intimidate the media and impede the democratic processes that party leader and de facto head of government Ms Ang San Suu Kyi and her party had fought long and hard for.

The call was echoed by Mr Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International's Regional Director for South-east Asia and Pacific.

"Arresting and detaining these two men raises serious concerns about the NLD-led government's commitment to freedom of expression."

Legal Aid Network released a statement that said the case will send Myanmar media back to the "dark ages", with no one daring to criticise the authorities. It said the government led by the NLD and Yangon Chief Minister should value Eleven Media in maintaining the public interest with anti-corruption reports.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Myanmar (FCCM) issued a statement that expressed deep concern about the arrests and legal action against the Eleven Media Group journalists.

In contrast, the Myanmar Press Council announced said it could not intervene in a case involving the Eleven article "Myanmar: A year after the November 8 polls", despite a request to do so by Yangon Region government as the latter needs to first agree to withdraw its initial lawsuit, as stipulated in the Media Law.

On Friday, Mr Wai Phyo, chief editor of Eleven Media Group, said, "We are here today as CEO and me went for being interrogated as we are charged with the Tele Communications Law 66(d) by Yangon Region Government. The 66(d) is an unfair law. Every citizen should get equal rights under the law. If taken action with 66(d), what I want to say is let there be fair(ness) and justice. We'll be back for the truth. We'll be back for Eleven for bring back the truth. Please stand by justice."

Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein told a press conference last week that "the post was intended to defame my personal dignity, a misrepresentation and it has disturbed by activities."

Amnesty's Mr Djamin said, "Using repressive laws to stifle peaceful criticism of government officials could cause other media workers in Myanmar to self censor. State officials are not above scrutiny, and journalists have an important role in holding them accountable."