Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘We Are People Who Provide the Public with Correct News’

By The Irrawaddy 19 November 2016

The topic of this week’s discussion is one of the most sensational pieces of news right now: Rangoon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein’s defamation lawsuit against Eleven Media Group.

Political and social commentator U Nyein Chan Aye and Daw Thin Thin Thar, secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, have been invited to the Irrawaddy studio. I am Ye Ni, editor of The Irrawaddy Burmese Edition.

Ye Ni: Let’s talk about the lawsuit in which chief executive of the Eleven Media Group Dr. Than Htut Aung and chief editor U Wai Phyo were sued by Rangoon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and detained by police. As it is the first lawsuit against the media under the National League for Democracy-led government, there have been concerns among local media organizations and regional and international organizations dedicated to media freedom. Most people are wondering what Article 66(d) of the law even means.

It is not the first lawsuit of its kind; there are many other cases under this article. So the question has risen as to whether Article 66(d) threatens press freedom. Ko Nyein Chan Aye, what is your opinion?

Nyein Chan Aye: In my opinion, the Telecommunication Law is very comprehensive. It covers not just the media but also individuals. It covers online communications as well as mobile communications. As far as I understand, a person can be sued if his or her use of text messaging harms someone. Although I do not understand it in legal terms, it is very comprehensive. This is one of the weaknesses of the law. I think it is so comprehensive that it’s easy to manipulate it as desired.

In the case of Eleven Media, I think there are other ways and means to solve the problem. For example, the Rangoon government can invite it to discuss the dispute. That is a common practice among the media. They can also insert a correction in their publication. If we make a mistake, we publish a correction. We acknowledge it. Although they can do the same in this case, I cannot understand why they, as a government, opted to sue the media under the article, which is a criminal code and bail is not available for the accused under it. I also don’t understand why a government that is made up of people who were once sentenced to lengthy terms in prison under similar laws, such as Article 5(J) of the Emergency Provisions Act and Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, opted to use the law, especially against the media. They could have raised the issue with the Press Council and solved it, but they didn’t. They even said at a press conference that it was not a personal attack but an attack against the government. It is defamation. It caused damage to their dignity. These are the two reasons they explained. They could have raised the issue with the Press Council. Another way was to sue the media, which is what they chose. Eleven was sued.

Now, I still think that both sides will negotiate for a solution. I think it is still possible. In legal terms, there are precedents, previous cases to be cited later. If there is a precedent of this kind of handling of the media, then I, as an editor of a magazine, I am concerned that we will directly land in jail if we publish a story based on incorrect information.

YN: Of course, these are concerns of the media, commentators, and writers. Another question is, what if writers and reporters make mistakes? There are arguments that when the media and journalists make mistakes, legal action should be taken against them as no one is above the law. However, Eleven has requested that the Press Council mediate the issue, according to the latest developments. It’s also been said that Eleven is working to drop all its lawsuits against others under Article 66(d). How is the Press Council handling the problem, Ma Thin Thin Thar? Ma

Thin Thin: There are some offenses under journalism ethics. For example, under Article 9(g) of Chapter 4, it is an offense of ethics if a piece of writing damages the public interest or rights of an individual. Eleven Media accused the government of corruption. The government thinks that it would damage its dignity. If so, anyone who is found to have breached these ethics is liable to pay a fine of a minimum of 300,000 kyats to a maximum 1 million kyats, according to Article 25, Chapter 9 of the Media Law enacted by the previous government.

If the media accuses somebody of something based on incorrect information, they make an offense under the Media Law. However, they opted not to apply the law and chose other laws—Article 66(d). At the same time, they say they are trying to amend the law.

We are also trying to amend some laws, but at the moment we cannot say exactly which laws since we haven’t discussed these issues. We are organizing journalists and asking for their opinions regarding laws that need amending. Recently, we met with Parliament’s Bill Committee and they told us to submit the laws to them. We are trying not just as the Press Council but also as journalists.

What we have to see is whether the Media Law can overrule the Telecommunications Law. The Articles of the Telecommunications Law are applied to all citizens. The Media Law is not a privilege for journalists. We are not enjoying special privileges. We live on news as journalists in the interest of the people. We are not just citizens. We are people shining a light on news for the public. We are people who provide the public with correct news.

It is possible for journalists to breach ethics unknowingly. In that instance, they are not above the law. We have media ethics and the Media Law. So I think journalists should be sued according to the media law if they breach ethics.

YN: Some people, citing Singapore, ask if journalists can be sued under defamation laws. This is because it is okay for someone to criticize actions, rules and regulations of the government but when he or she wrongly accuses the government of corruption, it amounts to defamation. What do you think of that, Ko Nyein Chan Aye?

NCA: I think they should sue them under defamation charges. But he said at the press conference that he is a chief minister responsible for Rangoon’s regional government. Defaming him amounts to defaming the government. So he issued a statement in the name of his office, he said. I can’t understand why he has applied the executive power of the government for such a trivial thing like personal affairs. All different kinds of government officials appeared at the press conference and the accused were detained and put into prison. They may be right according to the law or Article 66(d). Justice is more important than following the law. If that law is applied the same way in the future, if the media is not allowed to make corrections, what are the prospects for the media?

Another point I want to make is that he exaggerated the case. The prey and the weapon he used were disproportionate. I think there are many reasons behind the scenes. They may be personal. However, consequences impact all media and citizens. I will post what I believe on my Facebook. I will tell somebody what I think. We could not do so in the past. We had to whisper. If we had done so at a teashop in the past, we could have landed in prison.

From such dangerous circumstances filled with trauma, we entered a new era in 2015. We can say what we like with freedom, with ethics. It is true that writers and cartoonists, all creators have to follow ethical guidelines. However, no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes sometimes. I think the government should not detain people and put them in prison with the use of the law and executive power simply because they make mistakes.

YN: In my opinion, people should not be charged under a criminal offense for posting their social and political opinions on their social media accounts. According to international human rights standards, exercising one’s freedom of speech should not be criminalized.

To achieve our long-term desire for democracy and press freedom, I hope that both sides—with the help of the Press Council and other institutions—will be able to engage in negotiations to find a solution, and point out what is right and what is wrong.