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Myanmar media execs in court on defamation charges

November 25, 2016

Two Myanmar media executives appeared in court on Friday charged with defamation, in a case that has crystallised fears for press freedom under the country’s new democratic government.

The CEO of Eleven Media Group, Than Htut Aung, and the chief editor of one of its papers, Wai Phyo, appeared in court handcuffed together after two weeks awaiting trial.

The pair were charged with defamation under Myanmar’s controversial telecommunications law, which was frequently used by the former quasi-military government to punish critics.

A high-profile member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party brought the charges over a column accusing him of receiving a $100,000 watch from a businessman, who later won plum contracts.

Despite hopes the Nobel laureate’s government would usher in a new era of free expression, several people have been prosecuted for defamation since her party took over in late March.

“Eleven’s CEO and chief editor Wai Phyo were charged under 66 (d) today,” the defendants’ lawyer, Kyi Myint, told reporters referencing the section of the legal code.

“The judge will decide whether the defendants will get bail on 30 November.”

The case comes as concerns deepen over freedom of expression under Myanmar’s new leadership.

The media was strictly controlled by the junta that ruled the country for half a century.

Freedoms have increased under Suu Kyi but monitors say many outlets still exercise self-censorship in fear of the law.

Several people have been prosecuted for defamation since her party took over in late March, including one man sentenced to jail for calling the president “crazy” on Facebook.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) this week slammed the prosecution of the Eleven Media executives, and called for the legislation to be scrapped.

The law is “a hangover from the previous regime and has no place in today’s Burma,” said RSF’s Benjamin Ismail, using another name for Myanmar.

RSF ranks Myanmar 143rd out of 180 countries in its press freedom index.

Myint Kyaw, a member of Myanmar’s Press Council agreed, telling AFP he feared the latest case would “hurt freedom of expression”.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.