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September 4, 2017 - Updated on September 5, 2017

Burma: Journalist accused of defaming Islamophobic Buddhist monk

Journalist Swe Win goes to court in Mandalay, on July 31 2017 (photo: Stringer/AFP).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the dismissal of the case against Swe Win, a leading Burmese journalist who is due to appear in court today in Rangoon on a charge of defaming Ashin Wirathu, a fundamentalist Buddhist monk known for his anti-Muslim tirades.

The editor of the Myanmar Now news website, Swe Win is being prosecuted under article 66(d) of Burma’s controversial Telecommunications Act as a result of a complaint brought against him by a Wirathu follower in March over a Facebook post.


Today’s court appearance follows his arrest in connection with the complaint on 30 July at Rangoon international airport, as he was about to fly to Bangkok for work reasons. He was released on bail.


The complaint accuses Swe Win of defaming Wirathu, the leader of the nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion), by claiming that he violated the monastic code in his use of hate speech against Burma’s Muslim minority, the Rohingyas, regarded by the UN as the world’s most persecuted community.


“It is incomprehensible that a journalist can be prosecuted for defamation when all he did was report facts that are established, documented and well-known far beyond Burma’s borders”, RSF said.


Wirathu is notorious internationally for his diatribes stirring up racial and religious hatred. Last March, the Buddhist religious authorities banned him from preaching for a year because of his Islamophobic hate speech targeting the Rohingyas.


RSF is concerned about the fact that today’s hearing is taking place at a particular sensitive moment, after clashes between the Burmese armed forces and Rohingya fighters left a toll of more than 400 dead and around 90,000 displaced in the space of a week.


“The Swe Win case is a good example of the flaws in article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act and the urgent need to repeal provisions that are supposed to prevent defamation but have proved to be powerful censorship tools”, RSF added.


“We urge the Burmese authorities to quickly dismiss these proceedings against Myanmar Now’s editor, and we welcome the fact that the armed forces have just withdrawn their complaints against six other journalists.”


The military announced the withdrawal of complaints against six journalists on 1 September. Explaining the decision, a communiqué said the military “recognises that media workers and [the military] share the same cause and work for the interest of the country and its people” and should be able to “continue cooperating.”


The six journalists include Aye Naing and Pyae Phone Naing of Democratic Voice of Burma and Lawi Weng, also known as Thein Zaw, of The Irrawaddy, who were held for more than two months for meeting a rebel group in the course of their reporting.


They also include Kyaw Min Swe and Kyaw Zwa Naing (better known as British Ko Ko Maung) of The Voice Daily, who were prosecuted over a satirical article, and Eleven Media editor Wai Phyo, who was prosecuted in connection with corruption allegations.


Despite recent amendments, the Telecommunications Act and, in particular, article 66(d) of the act continue to be effective tools for censoring critics of government institutions. There have been at least 67 prosecutions linked to this article since its adoption in 2013, 14 of them targeting journalists, including two Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma reporters.


Burma is ranked 131st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.