YANGON—Myanmar President U Win Myint on Thursday intervened in the detention of three Eleven Media journalists, ordering the Yangon regional government to follow the Media Law in handling their case.
The Yangon regional government filed lawsuits against two editors and a reporter from Eleven Media Group earlier this month accusing them of committing offenses against the state. They have been held at Insein Prison for the past nine days.
In the afternoon, a President’s Office directive to the Yangon government went viral on Facebook. It briefly stated the three main steps required under the media law: to file an initial complaint about the case with the Press Council in line with the Media Law’s Article 22; to deal with the issue in cooperation with the council; and, if the case is not addressed by the council, to bring the case to court.
The Yangon government didn’t follow the procedures stated. Instead, the journalists were arrested and taken to court immediately.
The presidential intervention comes amid mounting criticism that the Yangon government’s lawsuit against the journalists constitutes an assault on freedom of expression. Even lawmakers said the story that prompted the lawsuit was based on MPs’ discussions in Parliament about the general’s auditor report on the government budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay confirmed the directive while speaking to reporters in Naypyitaw on Thursday. In brief comments, he said the regional government had notified the President’s Office of its action against the Weekly Eleven journalists, and that the Union government had responded by ordering it to act in line with the law. He declined to comment further about the letter, directing inquiries to Yangon authorities.
According to the presidential directive, the case was reported to the president last Wednesday, the same day on which the journalists were arrested.
The Myanmar Press Council (MPC) announced that it had received a complaint letter from the Yangon government on Thursday afternoon. Regional government director U Aung Kyaw Khine, who is acting as the plaintiff in the case on behalf of the government, submitted the letter personally, said council member U Zeyar Hlaing, who is also chief editor of Mawkun magazine. However, the official failed to present a concrete reason for the filing of the complaint, U Zeyar Hlaing said.
“[U Aung Kyaw Khine] merely told us that he submitted the case to the Press Council on the instruction of higher authorities. He did not say who was actually behind the order,” he said.
It is unclear what action the Press Council will be able to take, however, as it is prohibited from getting involved in ongoing lawsuits. Council chairman Hanthawaddy U Ohn Kyaing was quoted in a local publication as saying that if the case was to be mediated by the council, the lawsuit needed to be dropped first.
U Zeyar Hlaing said, “Although there are multiple options for resolving the case, it’s pretty obvious that the regional government deliberately chose to file serious charges against the journalists.”
He added that the Weekly Eleven report did not defame the government, as its reporting was based on statistics contained in the chief auditor’s report and discussed by lawmakers in the regional Parliament.
“I don’t see anything defamatory in the article, and it did not tarnish the image of the government. But the government has now really damaged its own image by failing to act in line with procedures,” U Zeyar Hlaing said.