Prison Term for Reporter Leads to Outcry Over Media Freedom

Myanmar, press freedom, censorship, freedom of expression

Eleven Media reporter Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, also known as Ma Khine, was sentenced to three months in Loikaw Prison on charges of trespassing, defamation and abusive language. (Photo: Eleven Media)

RANGOON — A three-month prison term imposed last week on a Burmese reporter has been criticized by local and international press freedom groups, who say the punishment given to Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, a journalist with Rangoon-based Eleven Media, is too harsh.

The case is believed to be the first imprisonment of a reporter since President Thein Sein’s reformist government in 2012 released jailed journalists and lifted long-standing media restrictions.

Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, who is also known as Ma Khine, was sued by Loikaw-based lawyer Aye Aye Phyo after an argument allegedly took place while the reporter was seeking comments on an alleged video piracy case in late October.

On Dec. 17, the Loikaw Township Court in Karenni State sentenced the reporter to three months imprisonment on charges of trespassing in Aye Aye Phyo’s home as well as defaming and using abusive language against her.

Eleven Media and the detained reporter deny any wrongdoing in the case and the media organization condemned the sentencing as “a miscarriage of justice, a direct threat to journalists and an attack on press freedom.”

Eleven Media says it sent letters about the case to various local and international press freedom groups, as well as to Burma’s President Thein Sein and to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the head of the parliamentary committee covering rule of law.

Meanwhile, Eleven Media chief editor Wai Phyo visited Loikaw Prison on Friday and had a 30-minute conversation with Ma Khine, who was said to have been surprised by the prison term as she had expected to be fined.

“She said she is not guilty of all these charges as they alleged at the court,” Wai Phyo told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “We are going to appeal in this case.”

“The charges and punishment are not justified,” he said, adding that the risk of getting sued over defamation and trespassing could deter Burmese reporters from carrying out their work.

“This case threatens freedom of the press,” he warned, adding that defamation charges should not carry heavy criminal punishment. “A person should never be sent to jail under article 500 [defamation]… If you sentence someone under article 500, then how can anyone work as a journalist?” he said.

Eleven Media CEO Than Htut Aung was awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom for 2013, by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers WAN-IFRA 2013.

Eleven has, however, been criticized for its coverage of violence in Burma’s western Arakan state, usually referring to the Rohingya, a Muslim group regarded by the Burmese Government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, as ‘Bengalis.’

In recent days, Eleven Media’s criticism of the Ma Khine jailing was backed-up by local and international media organizations.

Myint Kyaw, a member of Burma’s Interim Press Council, a journalist organization set up with government backing in Sept. 2012, said the punishment was too harsh.

“I don’t know the details,” he told The Irrawaddy, referring to the specifics of the case against Ma Khine. “But as far as I know the punishment is too much for a journalist.”

Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), told The Irrawaddy in an emailed note that, “The conviction under three sections of the Penal Code, including defamation, is unnecessary and disproportionate to the alleged incident.”

The incident could prompt others to use the courts to curb the press, argues SEAPA, a regional press freedom body.

“We anticipate that legal instruments such as these will be used by individuals and organizations to prevent the media from doing its work,” said Gayathry Venkiteswaran, who cautioned that “the incident serves as a reminder to journalists who should conduct themselves with utmost transparency and integrity to avoid any risks of legal threats.”

The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and the World Editors Forum, in a statement on Dec. 19, urged “an immediate investigation into the sentence and to ensure there has been no political interference or mishandling of the case.

“We are concerned that this type of punishment sends a chilling effect amongst the Myanmar media, a particularly worrying development ahead of elections in 2015,” the group said.

Eleven Media reported last week that local NLD personnel were linked to the case. Asked by The Irrawaddy about the sentencing, NLD spokesman Nyan Win said that “this is a private matter and nothing to do with NLD, so we have no comment to make.”

The punishment has prompted suspicions among Burma media watchers that there could have been some political interference with the courts. “We suspect some influence on the local authority or judiciary,” Myint Kyaw surmised.

Earlier Eleven Media claimed that the verdict could have been down to editorials it had run recently alleging corruption in Burma’s judiciary. A recent report on lawyers in Burma by the International Commission of Jurist (ICJ) described graft in the sector as widespread.

“The legal profession in Myanmar has low public and professional standing, due to a history of eroded respect for the rule of law, political oppression, and endemic corruption,” the ICJ wrote.

The sentencing comes after loosening of Burma’s long-standing press restrictions by Thein Sein’s government, with the abolition of censorship and the reintroduction of private-run daily print newspapers in April.

And after months of acrimonious wrangling, several new media bills could become law in the coming months, including the press council’s News Media Bill as well as the government’s Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill.

However, a new public service media law is unlikely to be passed anytime soon, according to Burma’s Information Minister Aung Kyi. The minister told The Irrawaddy in a late November interview that it could be late 2015 before Burma has a public service media to replace the current state mouthpieces such as MRTV and The New Light of Myanmar.

5 Responses to Prison Term for Reporter Leads to Outcry Over Media Freedom

  1. Sounds like they borrowed Thailand’s libel law, where anyone pointing out a criminal act against someone powerful is liable to be arrested, held in detention and imprisoned for years regardless of the veracity of their claim.

  2. George Than Setkyar Heine

    Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, a journalist with Rangoon-based Eleven Media, is the first reporter sent to prison during President Thein Sein’s rule until today.
    And more will follow in her wake in the run up to 2015 elections as well, any bets?
    That’s the BRAND of JUSTICE in STORE for the people of Burma as long as Than Shwe’s clerk Thein Sein and the former and current sidekicks of the MONK MURDERER are LEFT to RUN AMOK in Burma from Naypyidaw folks!
    MEDIA FREEDOM is NOT in the LIST of REFORMS as evidenced today.
    JUDICIARY in DISARRAY in BURMA since half a century ago until today certainly PROVED the FACT: RULE of LAW is NON-EXISTENT in the country stemming from POLITICAL OPPRESSION by the ruling military junta and ENDING in ENDEMIC CORRUPTION in the country today.
    Thein Sein is a PUPPET PRESIDENT STRAPPED with a ROTTEN CARCASS of a CONSTITUTION designed to COVER Than Shwe, his family, cronies and sidekicks’ ASSES/ASSETS only, don’t argue man!
    MEDIA REFORM is ANATHEMA to DICTATORS including the CHINESE COMMUNISTS in Beijing and blood thirsty little North Korean KIM JONG UN among ALL their ILK on this earth as well if you don’t know yet.
    Hence, HEADS WILL ROLL, FIRES WILL BURN and of course the PEOPLE HAVE NO CHOICE other than to RUN as well when Naypyidaw WAGE a REIGN of TERROR in the country to PRESENT/POSE the PICTURE : LACKING in PEACE and STABILITY in the country VIABLE for HOLDING the 2015 ELECTION and instead PUSH for COLLECTIVE RULE – of course headed by Shwe Mann most likely as well – from 2015 to 2020 while commandeering the services of Suu Kyi and other opposition figures in the puppet parliament at Naypyidaw in the same vein as the Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing WITHOUT ANY OPPOSITION to their rule as well.
    Remember NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE in Than Shwe run COUNTRY – BURMA – lest you guys forget!

  3. Sugar-coated democracy in Myanmar is not even near to real democracy yet. Lawlessness is anarchy, not democracy. I was for five weeks in Myanmar from the beginning of November to December 5, 2013. I saw anarchy there, not rule of law. Is Thein Sein a useless president? Or is USDP a useless party? Or are the Burmese people themselves lawless people? I saw no democracy in Myanmar during my visit. Now, we see it again lawlessness. Injustice is still on he throne.

  4. Maung Lu Aye ( Law ) R.A.S.U.1976

    Local & International Press Freedom Groups said that So-called Govt punishment to Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho was too harsh. When Than Shwe’s Pu Tu Tu, Po La Pyay slapped Police Officer, Nobody dare to touch him. Po La Pyay is Untouchable as well as Some Highly Militay Officials. Are there Any different law for the Military New Class and Ordinary Burmese Citizens ?
    The Respectable Burmese Reporter was just doing her Job. And when she was doing beyond her limit or Out of Bound, the State Authority can surely charged her for Trespassing, Defamation and Abusive Language. Everbody know ( Even Trishaw-man ) these Charges could only Punishable in Fines, but 3 Months Prison Term is out of Question. It is showing that the State Court or the Central/Naypyidaw Govt is Brainless, not thinking before doing.
    Not so much Surprised that Even NLD Co-Founder Hanthawaddy U Win Tin was sentenced to 2 decades without any Criminal Wrong doing. Any Burmese Military Regime ( Previous or Present ) can do whatever they like. Because they are the Same Bean from the Same Bin ). Whatever Color they Change as Chameleon/Poke-thin-Nyo they are the Same.
    Just friendly reminder to Ex-Gen Than Shwe & Ex- Gen Thein Sein, if you really heading toward the Way to Democracy , don’t ever think about Late Ne Win’s Stupid Legacy. Just listen and heeding the Voices from the People. Don’t Underestimate the People.
    Last not the least,for Ex-Generals, what kind of Eulogies do you want, after your Passing away ?
    Even , Hitler , Mussolini, and Ne Win had No Eulogies. Converted from Revolutionary Patriot to Dictator, Josef Stalin’s Grave was moved from Red-Square,Kremlin to Unknown Place. Know Thyself.

  5. In Myanmar, we can not tell the truth. If someone is in the truth sight, that person must be outside of their compound. Especially, the President Thein Sein said that in any offices of the government association they cannot ask any amount of the money according with their tasks. But that’s wrong. From the offices connect with the foreigners their asked a lot of amount money because they want to squese the neck of the foreigner. Democracy and it’s system are good and very desciplined. Myanmar citizens are out of the descipline. Democracy is not match with the Myanmar Citizens. According with the Ma Khine, the reporter from Low Kaw District, she is very humble, peaceful, joyful, helpful, look to the other people’s needed all the time, good behaviour, never use abusive words and bad words to any other people, Because I can recommand to her, she is my best and beloved friend and also as my own sister. Now faced the problems like that kind of situations in unfare. I can’t believed that. The main one thing of the Myanmar President have to look around the whole Myanmar. It’s not time to sit at the throne. All Myanmar people like Ma Khine faced with the unfare causes at every places.

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