Government suit against ‘Eleven’ editors prompts criticism

The government has launched a criminal contempt-of-court prosecution against 17 senior members of the editorial team of Daily Eleven, arguing that their coverage of an earlier defamation suit was in breach of the law.
Foreign and local critics say the latest legal action continues a longstanding trend of the government using the law to silence the media, but a senior government official yesterday described this accusation as “not fair”.

The court action was initiated on June 15 by U Kyaw Soe, managing director of the News and Periodicals Enterprise of the Ministry of Information, and a former colonel in the Tatmadaw.

The defendants are the paper’s managing editor, the editor-in-chief and his deputy, six executive editors, the chief reporter and seven senior editors.

U Kyaw Soe is already pursuing a separate action against five senior staff at Eleven for allegedly defaming the information ministry. He initiated the action at Nay Pyi Taw court in 2014 in connection with the newspaper’s allegation that the ministry had bought the press for a state-owned newspaper at an inflated price. The case is still proceeding.

The latest charge relates to the newspaper’s coverage of that court case. On March 5, the newspaper’s lawyer raised questions in court concerning the purchase of the offset press. The paper carried U Kyaw Soe’s reply on March 21, stating, “The complainant, U Kyaw Soe, confessed that the Ministry of Information had bought the offset for 700,000 euro in 2009.”

U Kyaw Soe’s contempt-of-court allegation stems from the fact that the newspaper was insisting on the innocence of its staff before the court has ruled on the matter, according to Eleven Media Group.

The case is to be heard at Mandalay Region High Court. Eleven Media Group representatives said the 1100-kilometre (685-mile) round trip from Yangon to Mandalay to attend court hearings, which typically take place every one or two weeks, would be a major burden for the company.

“The editors who are being sued are [the leaders] of news production. This will have a serious impact on us,” said Daily Eleven chief Ko Wai Phyo.

If convicted, the journalists face a prison sentence of up to six months or a K100,000 fine, or both.

Ko Wai Phyo said the prosecution underlined “the pressure of the government on journalists”.

“[Minister for Information] U Ye Htut says the government allows freedom of the press. But journalists are being jailed,” he said, adding that the number of journalists subjected to legal action had increased since 2013.

Defence lawyer U Thein Than Oo said that a strong fourth estate was needed to ensure “good government”.

“Now, journalists and certain politicians are being hunted. The government is taking all possible legal measures against them,” he said, adding that the contempt of court law expressly allows press coverage of ongoing court cases.

The amended Contempt of Courts Law, enacted in July 2013, makes it illegal to publish anything that “scandalises” the court, interferes or disturbs with a case or impairs public trust in the judiciary. It is also illegal to “pre-comment” on cases before a verdict is handed down.

However, the law contains several exemptions, including one that allows publication of “fair” or “true” information on an ongoing case.

U Ye Htut told The Myanmar Times yesterday that the ministry had taken legal action because the article published by Eleven Media could hurt the independence of the judiciary.

He also dismissed international and local accusations that the government is increasing its oppression of the media as “not fair”.

“I can give you a clear reason why. Just compare how many times Eleven Media charged other media compared to our ministry, which has only charged them twice,” he said.

On his Facebook page, he also criticised Eleven for apparently barring journalists from state-run MRTV from attending their June 20 press conference.

“The Ministry of Information never stopped Eleven from attend our media conferences and we also responded as much as we could to questions from Eleven reporters,” he wrote. “We don’t know why they didn’t allow MRTV to attend the press conference. We are not sure whether they have a different attitude than us on the right [of journalists] to gather news … Readers can guess.”

But the industry appears to mostly be on Eleven Media’s side, despite the company’s propensity for taking legal action.

Vice chair of the Myanmar Press Council (Interim), U Phoe Thauk Kyar, criticised the government’s decision. “We need mutual understanding between the media and the government. That can’t be built by arresting and jailing journalists,” he said.

MP U Aye Maung said on June 20, “I suspect this is a way of keeping journalists quiet as the elections approach.”

On June 16, Amnesty International issued a reporting alleging that the government was “intensifying” restrictions on media ahead of the election. The report said the authorities are “relying on old and new methods to intimidate media and restrict freedom of expression”. It listed a range of cases to support its claim, including the sentencing of the “Unity Five” to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labour and death of Ko Par Gyi while in military custody, both last year.

“What we are seeing in Myanmar today is repression dressed up as progress. Authorities are still relying on the same old tactics – arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time to muzzle those journalists who cover ‘inconvenient’ topics,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Additional reporting by Wa Lone

(Quote from Myanmar times online website on 22 June 2015)