RANGOON — Communal violence in western Burma that left more than 60 people dead has also posed a challenge for the newfound freedom of the country’s press, testing the limits of free speech and good taste.
The publisher of the Hlyat Tabyet, or Snapshot, weekly journal said Friday he has been summoned to court to face criminal charges for publishing material that allegedly could induce the public to commit acts of public mischief.
He said the court summons for Monday did not detail the charges but could be related to a photo of the body of an ethnic Arakanese girl — with face blurred out — who was raped and murdered by three Muslim men.
The crime fueled this month’s mob violence between the Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya communities in Arakan State, which left at least 62 people dead, thousands of homes burned down and tens of thousands of people displaced.
Myat Khine, Hlyat Tabyet’s editor and publisher, said the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division had already on June 11 suspended the journal’s license for publishing the photograph, which the authorities deemed inappropriate and capable of inciting unrest. It has now missed two issues.
Lawsuits involving the media are a new development in Burma under President Thein Sein’s government, which has loosened some restrictions on the press as part of its recent reforms after five decades of repressive military rule.
Under the previous military regime, strict media censorship determined what was fit to print and violators faced arbitrary punishment and severe penalties.
“I printed a photograph that had been circulating for a couple of days and after the communal clashes had already broken out,” Myat Khine said. “The photograph in my journal did not cause any further violence.”
A few days after the journal published the photo, the chief minister of Rangoon Region told editors and reporters to avoid writing reports that could instigate further violence. Myint Swe warned that anyone who violates laws against undermining state security or spreading news that could cause disorder could face jail terms of up to seven years.
Such prosecutions would “stifle freedom of expression and a free press,” said Myat Khine.
In recent months, a government ministry filed a defamation suit against a weekly publication called The Voice over an article about misappropriation and irregularities in four ministries’ financial accounts. The article cited a report from the auditor general’s office to the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.
Another weekly publication, The Modern, had faced a defamation case over an article that alleged truck drivers had bribed engineers at the Construction Ministry to let them use a certain bridge even though their vehicles exceeded the weight limit. One of the engineers sued the publication, but the two sides settled after the magazine printed a correction.