YANGON—The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged the Myanmar military to drop its criminal defamation case against The Irrawaddy over its coverage of the conflict in Rakhine State.
On April 12, the military’s Yangon Region Command filed a criminal complaint against the news outlet’s Burmese-language editor U Ye Ni at the Kyauktada Police Station in Yangon. The criminal complaint was filed under the Telecommunications Law’s Article 66(d), which is punishable by two years in prison. The editor was allowed to post bail on the same day the complaint was filed.
It is the second time the military has taken legal action against The Irrawaddy in the past three years. In June 2017 a reporter from the news organization and two others from Democratic Voice of Burma were detained by the military and charged under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act during a reporting trip to northern Shan State.
The CPJ, a U.S. non-profit organization that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists worldwide, on Thursday called for Myanmar’s military to stop using legal threats to stifle news coverage of ongoing armed conflicts and to allow journalists to do their jobs without fear of reprisal.
“This spurious criminal accusation against The Irrawaddy editor Ye Ni should be dropped immediately and unconditionally,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.
The Irrawaddy editor-in-chief U Aung Zaw called the complaint part of a military “intimidation campaign” aimed at silencing prominent media.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, an official at the military’s True News Information Team, a communications department, told The Irrawaddy on April 21 that its recent news coverage of clashes between government forces and the insurgent Arakan Army had been “unfair” and prompted the legal action.
The criminal complaint against The Irrawaddy comes against the backdrop of the continued incarceration of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, whose final appeal of their seven-year prison sentences under the Official Secrets Act for reporting on the conflict in Rakhine State was rejected on April 23.
Myanmar’s government and military have used Article 66(d) to stifle media criticism and intimidate and harass journalists.
Meanwhile, the military’s ire has not been limited to the news media. It recently charged an activist, a human-rights film director and student activists with public mischief. In 2017, the military sued the editor and a writer from local paper The Voice over a satirical piece.
Human Rights Watch also released a statement on Friday stating that the Myanmar authorities have in recent weeks engaged in a series of arrests of peaceful critics of the Army and government. It urged Parliament to repeal or amend repressive laws used to silence critics and suppress freedom of expression.
The statement said the recent upswing in arrests of student activists engaged in satirical performances, as well as political activists and journalists, reflects a rapid decline in freedom of expression in Myanmar under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government.
“During Myanmar’s long military dictatorship, numerous governments and donors made freedom of expression and freeing political prisoners the cornerstone of their policy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
“At a time when Myanmar’s transformation to a rights-respecting democracy hangs in the balance, where are those same voices?” he asked.