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Myanmar media execs granted bail in defamation trial

January 6, 2017

Two Myanmar media executives were granted bail on Friday in a high-profile defamation case that has become a lightning rod for fears over teetering press freedoms under the new democratic government.

The CEO of Eleven Media Group, Than Htut Aung, was freed after suffering a heart attack in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison, where he had been detained for almost two months.

He and the chief editor of one the group’s papers, Wai Phyo, were jailed in November over a column that accused a government minister of receiving a $100,000 watch from a businessman who later won plum contracts.

The minister, Phyo Min Thein, is a high-profile member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which came to power in March after winning elections that ended decades of military rule.

Than Htut Aung looked faint as he waded through a scrum of journalists at the court on Friday, supported by his son.

“The two defendants got bail today because the doctor who checked the CEO’s health problems… reported to the court,” their lawyer, Kyee Myint, told AFP.

The pair, whose bail requests were rejected three times before Friday, will next appear in court on January 13.

Media freedom has increased since Myanmar ended censorship in 2012, the year after a reformist quasi-civilian government took power from the former junta.

But activists say defamation prosecutions have risen sharply since Suu Kyi’s NLD party took office.

Former political prisoner Maung Saugkha said seven people were sued with defamation under the telecommunications law between 2013-16. Since the NLD took over, 38 cases have been brought.

“I do not see any progress on media freedoms under the new government,” Ma Thida, dissident author and founder of the Myanmar chapter of writers advocacy group PEN, told AFP.

“Stopping people from sharing what they think and saying what they see is not the democratic way.”

In another defamation case being tried in Yangon on Friday, an NLD official was denied bail after being charged with insulting the head of the army.

Myo Yan Naung Thein, secretary of the NLD’s central research committee, has been held since November for posts on Facebook criticising General Min Aung Hlaing’s handling of a crisis in Rakhine state.

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