The two journalists are Than Htut Aung, the CEO of the Eleven Media Group, and Wai Phyo, its chief editor.
The chief minister, who is a member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), announced at a news conference on 9 November that he was bringing a complaint against the two journalists under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which penalizes defamation using a telecommunications network.
Published in the Eleven Media newspaper Eleven Daily and on Than Htut Aung’s personal Facebook page, the editorial claimed that the chief minister accepted a Philippe Patek watch worth 100,000 dollars from a businessman who was recently released from prison and who has been awarded a Rangoon region construction contract.
After refusing to respond to a police summons on 10 November, Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo were arrested the next day and are now being held in Insein prison pending an appearance before a Rangoon court scheduled for 25 November.
“The Telecommunications Law criminalizes media offences and, as such, constitutes a disproportionate response in a defamation case,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The Rangoon region’s chief minister has every right to defend himself against these allegations but it is completely unacceptable for journalists to be detained for several weeks because of what they publish, just as it is very pernicious for them to be threatened with jail sentences. This case is just reinforcing the already widespread self-censorship.”
This is the first time that a senior NLD official has brought a complaint under the Telecommunications Law. Complaints have in the past been filed against people who posted messages allegedly defaming State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi or President Hint Kyaw but not directly by a ruling party leader until now. A complaint was also filed with the Press Council, which regulates the Burmese media. But the Press Council said it could not address the case because it had already been referred to the courts.
Representatives of journalists’ associations and a network of lawyers specialized in media issues issue a joint statement on 13 November calling on the Press Council to play its role as mediator in this case.
“Rather than obsessing about the issue of journalistic ethics, the authorities should first create a favourable climate for freedom of expression and information,” Ismaïl added. “We call for the immediate repeal of this repressive law, which is a hangover from the previous regime and has no place in today’s Burma. We also call for the Press Council’s mediating role to be reinforced in this kind of case.”
Despite significant progress from 2011 to 2014, the media freedom situation continues to be worrying in Burma, which is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.