Deputy Minister Ye Htut in the Hot Seat Over Defamatory Anonymous Blog

By Kyaw Phyo Tha & Htet Naing Zaw 4 July 2013

RANGOON — An investigation into the identity of a high-profile anonymous blogger who criticized Parliament has cast a shadow over Burma’s Ministry of Information, with revelations of a secret ministry program aimed at discrediting political dissidents.

A parliamentary investigation of the blogger, who criticized the legislature for acting “above the law,” has uncovered separate evidence that the ministry secretly operated a radio program a few years ago to discredit democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic dissidents.

The now-defunct “Padauk Land” radio program was directly controlled by former Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, according to a report by the investigation commission which was read to Parliament on Monday. A separate director was appointed for the radio program, whose contributors included the current deputy information minister, Ye Htut, who is also President Thein Sein’s spokesman.

Ko Ko Hlaing, one of the president’s advisors, was another contributor on the show, the report added.

The commission’s findings suggest that the Ministry of Information was more aggressively involved than previously assumed in propaganda campaigns of the former military junta, which ceded power to Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government in 2011. The ministry under the junta also operated a censorship board and defamed political dissidents through state-owned media.

The findings have also raised speculations that although the ministry has disbanded its censorship board and pledged to transform its mouthpiece newspapers into public service media, it may still be actively bad-mouthing opposition leaders behind the scenes.

These speculations are further fueled by widespread allegations in the media and now by Parliament that Ye Htut, the deputy minister, could be behind the anonymous blog posts.

Although the parliamentary commission on Monday did not announce the identity of the blogger, known by the pen name Dr. Sate Phwar, the commission’s chairman said they found evidence that could implicate the deputy minister.

The commission interviewed officials from the ministry and the President’s Office as well as journalists from Eleven Media Group, a local news agency which had earlier reported on Ye Htut’s possible involvement in the blog.

The Daily Eleven, a daily newspaper published by Eleven Media, noted similarities in the writing styles of a website and Facebook account suspected to belong to Ye Htut when compared with Dr. Sate Phwar’s blog. Ye Htut, an active Facebook user, has an official account on the social media site where he often shares national news and government updates, but a separate anonymous account on the site also posts a real-time news feed about his activities and travels.

The anonymous Facebook account, registered as “Sit Aung,” stopped posting updates when the parliamentary commission began its investigation into Dr. Sate Phwar’s blog.

Ye Htut could not be reached for comment but has reportedly denied allegations that he or the ministry is responsible for the blog.

“If I were Dr. Sate Phwar, the Union Parliament would not need to form an investigation commission. I would go and tell them, ‘I am Dr. Sate Phwar and I wrote what I believe, and if you think I breached the laws then I am ready for a lawsuit,’” the deputy minister told The Myanmar Times newspaper in May, three months into the investigation.

The commission’s report described Dr. Sate Phwar’s blog post about Parliament as biased and said the writer “didn’t have the sense of duty to claim responsibility for it.”

“Although some evidence, including his writing style, revealed the identity of Dr. Sate Phwar, no-one came forward to identify himself as Dr. Sate Phwar while Parliament was investigating the case,” the report said.

On Monday, the commission chairman said that determining the identity of the blogger was beyond the commission’s capacity and they would seek technical assistance from Google to do so.

The Union Parliament speaker also accepted an apology posted on the blog and warned the blogger not to continue writing biased, defamatory posts.

“Anyone found guilty of committing that kind of crime can be charged with the 2004 Electronic Transactions Law and defamation under Article 500 of the Penal Code,” Thein Nyunt, a lawmaker and lawyer, told The Irrawaddy.

The Electronic Transactions Law, which was promulgated by the former military regime, allows for up to 15 years in prison for Internet users who receive, send or distribute any information which threatens or disturbs state security, law and order, community peace, national solidarity, the national economy or national culture.