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Press freedom advocates are up in arms after police on Friday arrested The Voice Daily’s editor-in-chief and a satirist for the newspaper, who are facing yet another electronic defamation suit brought by the military under Burma’s controversial article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.
Officers at the Bahan Township police station did not release The Voice’s editor-in-chief Kyaw Min Swe and the paper’s regular satirical columnist, who writes under the pen name British Ko Ko Maung, after questioning them in the commercial capital. The pair remain in pretrial custody at the station.
Khin Maung Myint, the defendants’ lawyer, told DVB his clients had not been prepared to remain in custody.
“They were called into the police station for interrogation and arrested. The chief police officer of the township officially notified them that the police officers had the arrest order in hand. We just came in for interrogation and have not prepared for either work- or family-related matters,” he said of the unexpected detention.
British Ko Ko Maung’s offending article, headlined “Oath of the Nation of Bullets” and published in late March, poked fun at “Union Oath,” a military propaganda film released in commemoration of Armed Forces Day.
The satirical piece came about two months before the second round of the 21st Century Panglong Conference — the national peacemaking dialogue convened by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on 24 May.
British Ko Ko Maung wrote, in part, “When the number of soldiers of the lowest ranks killed in battle has reached a satisfactory point, the major leaders hold celebratory peace conferences from time to time. Only the soldiers on both sides of the frontline are shooting their butts off.”
The Tatmadaw, however, was not amused. Second Lieutenant-General Tun Tun Oo lodged a complaint with the Myanmar Press Council in April, prompting a dispute mediation process that later broke down, despite a statement issued by The Voice that apologised for “satire that was assumed to harm the dignity of the Tatmadaw.”
MPC member Myint Kyaw told DVB the military has a clear stance: “Their intention is [this] message [to the media]: ‘This is where the line is drawn, you cannot pass this line.’”
The case is one of the latest in a slew of 66(d) court filings since the National League for Democracy took office in April 2016. It was widely assumed that the administration of pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi would usher in a new era of greater media freedom, but scores of defamation suits have been filed — many in retaliation for online criticism of the state counsellor and other high-profile public figures.
Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Southeast Asia representative, on Monday called for the case to be dropped.
“Defamation should never be a criminal matter, and the use of defamation laws to silence journalists harks back to the dark days of military rule, not to the democratic future many hoped Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government would herald.”
Activists and media are pressing for the law itself to be amended. Maung Saungkha, a poet who was detained under article 66(d) in 2015 and sentenced to six months in prison, said The Voice case highlighted “the weakness of the law.”
“It gives spotlight to the fact that no matter how you write with your artistic talent, if some parties consider it as an act of defamation, they can sue you. The law is not clearly defined and implies that anyone can be sued and detained under the law,” he told DVB this week.
Only two days after The Voice pair were detained, police arrested Pathein activist Tun Tun Oo, who live-streamed a play that the Tatmadaw deemed offensive. The military has sued nine other students, in addition to the activist, under article 500 of the Penal Code, which also covers defamation.
The students had staged a play as part of a peace workshop at the Pathein Hotel in the Irrawaddy Division capital. The Tatmadaw claims the play included dialogue that also harmed its dignity.
Tun Tun Oo, who founded the Human Rights Activists Association, was detained at Myoma police station on Sunday and released on bail on Tuesday.