YANGON — Legal consultant U Khin Maung Myint discussed with The Irrawaddy the case of three journalists, from The Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), charged under Article 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act and how the Myanmar Press Council must stand up for and defend the detained reporters.
U Khin Maung Myint consulted on cases against The Voice Daily’s chief editor U Kyaw Min Swe, satirist U Kyaw Zwa Naing, also known by his pen name British Ko Ko Maung, and Myanmar Now’s Editor-in-Chief Ko Swe Win.
Which groups or authorities should be assisting the detained journalists?
The three journalists just went [to northern Shan State] as part of their reporting, with the approval of their publications. They are official staff members for those publications. So, the Myanmar Press Council must take care of them.
The thing being debated is that as the journalists didn’t first seek permission from authorities for their reporting trip, they breached the Unlawful Associations Act. I don’t agree with that and that is not what the Media Law says. It doesn’t say reporters must seek permission from the military or other security related organizations, rather that if reporters who go to conflict areas want to ask for protective measures, they can request this from the related security organizations.
What is the role of the Myanmar Press Council?
The 2014 Media Law says the Myanmar Press Council is the only organization to oversee that media keep within the provisions of the law. The law was enacted, and signed by the then President. But the media law is not in practice and the council that was established in accordance with the law failed to work properly to keep it in practice.
So what I see is that in those three cases—Ko Swe Win, The Voice and the arrest of three journalists—the main organization which holds responsibility to take care of journalists is the Myanmar Press Council. If the council does their work cleverly, the problems facing these journalists would be solved to a certain extent.
What actions should be taken by the Myanmar Press Council?
The council is the body that should explain to those who are concerned in the case [of the three journalists] to understand the law. If they could do this, there wouldn’t be 17(1) charges.
The council and the Ministry of Information can express their suggestions independently and give them to the respective courts at any stage of the court trial.
The council is the most responsible and the most authorized organization in relation to the media industry. They can even give their comments directly to Supreme Court of the Union. The Myanmar Press Council is the highest body of the media, and the Supreme Court is the highest body of the judiciary—they should negotiate.
Unfortunately, the voice of the council is not seen as strong enough in the case of the journalists detained in northern Shan State as well as the two previous cases—Ko Swe Win and The Voice. The Myanmar Press Council and the Ministry of Information have not yet stood firmly with the accused journalists.
As the three journalists have been charged, what should the media council do now?
Now, what we want is for the council members to go the place where the incident happened. They need to examine whether the journalists were arrested fairly, whether their detainment was in accordance with the law as they are required to appear in court within 24 hours of their arrest [the journalists were kept at an undisclosed place under military detention for nearly three full days]. The council needs to be in Hsipaw now and oversee the case. But we have not yet seen the council do any of this.
The council needs to invite editors from The Irrawaddy and DVB, and ask for the details of the case and get statements from them. They need to comment that the reporters were just doing their jobs without meddling with any political affairs, and thus they didn’t breach the law. The council needs to give that to the Supreme Court.
If they do those things, the case of the three journalists would go smoothly and be resolved quickly. But, if the Myanmar Press Council continues to keep their hands off the case, it will be a struggle to escape from 17(1).