YANGON—A senior reporter from The Irrawaddy English edition was charged with online defamation under Article 66(d) of Myanmar’s controversial Telecommunications Law at the Kyauktada Courthouse on Thursday.
The charges stem from senior reporter Moe Myint’s coverage of a dispute involving a hotel investment among Myanmar and foreign shareholders in Rakhine State.
In November 2018, Daw Kalayar Moe, the current owner of the Amara Ocean Resort (AOR) in southern Rakhine State’s popular tourist destination Nagapali, filed a case against Moe Myint for his coverage from April to June last year exposing an unresolved dispute involving the hotel and its German investors.
In June 2009, Daw Kalaya Moe and her German ex-husband, Gerald Schreiber, jointly inked a deal with another German investor to develop a beach project worth several million dollars on a 17-acre plot of land on Ngapali Beach, as well as a 6-acre freshwater reservoir in Gaw Village, about a 5-minute drive from Thandwe Airport.
In June 2011, the third investor sold their 50-percent share (Daw Kalaya Moe and Schreiber held 25 percent each) to Dr. Jens Ehrahrdt, the chief executive officer of DJE Kapital group, a German financial and asset management company.
After Daw Kalayar Moe and Schreiber’s marriage ended in acrimony and they obtained a divorce from a court in Munich, Germany in 2012, the hotel’s ownership became legally disputed.
In 2013, Ehrahrdt sued Daw Kalaya Moe in a German court in the city of Munich.
All three parties participated in a series of trials there, none of which were favorable to Daw Kalayar Moe.
Because the Munich court decisions are not recognized in Myanmar, Ehrahrdt flew to Myanmar in 2018 to open a criminal case against Daw Kalayar Moe; in May, a DJE representative opened a breach-of-trust case under Section 409 of the Penal Code.
As per police procedure, an online defamation case needs the approval of the Ministry of Transport and Communications. After nearly a year, the ministry gave the green light this week to have the case proceed to court.
Article 66(d) of the Telecommunication Act can carry a sentence of up to three years in prison.
In June 2018, before forwarding the case to the police, plaintiff Daw Kalayar Moe complained to the Myanmar Press Council (MPC)—a mediation mechanism for media-related disputes in Myanmar—that The Irrawaddy’s reporting on the case was “inaccurate and one-sided.”
She publicly demanded The Irrawaddy apologize for “incorrect coverage” about her hotel via a state-run newspaper that same month.
In a meeting with the MPC, The Irrawaddy explained to council members that the reports published were based on solid evidence and ethical journalistic practice, including obtaining comments from both sides of the dispute.
The Irrawaddy English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe said the publication stands by Moe Myint’s reporting, which included concrete information, references and balanced reporting.
“We publish what the public needs to know, deserves to know—the untold matters that are happening around us,” he said.
Defense lawyer U Than Zaw Aung said that even though the articles were based on documents the reporter collected, the dissatisfied business woman sued the reporter with online defamation under Article 66(d).
He said that instead of using Article 66(d) to react to their dissatisfaction with the news, the plaintiffs could use other relevant articles such as the Media Law or defamation charges outlined in Section 500 of the Penal Code.
Moe Myint is currently out on bail.
The lawsuit against The Irrawaddy is the second this year. Previously, The Irrawaddy Burmese edition senior editor U Ye Ni also had an online defamation case opened against him by the Myanmar military, who claimed that coverage he published on armed conflict in Rakhine State was unfair.
Media critics have pointed out that online defamation charges like those under Article 66(d) are often exploited to target working journalists, political dissidents and social activists in Myanmar.
According to Athan, a civil society organization that documents and monitors online defamation charges, 200 people have been sued under Article 66(d) across the country as of June 2019. Thirty-two of them are journalists from different media organizations sued by the military or by government officials, lawmakers or the private businesses.