RANGOON — Hundreds of Burmese journalists marched through Rangoon on Tuesday to protest the first sentencing of a local reporter to prison since a reformist government came to power.
Eleven Media reporter Khine Khine Aye Cho, known by her pen name Ma Khine and based in Karenni State, was sentenced in mid-December to three months in prison for defamation, trespass and use of abusive language by a township court in the state capital, Loikaw.
She was sued by Loikaw-based lawyer Aye Aye Phyo after an argument allegedly took place between them while she was seeking comments on an alleged video piracy case in late October.
Over 200 people gathered in downtown Rangoon on Tuesday morning to march more than one hour from 36th Street to the Eleven Media office. The protesters included mostly journalists, as well as lawyers from the Myanmar Lawyers Network, activists from the well-known 88 Generation Students group, and members of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). Many wore T-shirts that read, “We don’t want a threat to press freedom,” while some held a banner declaring that the “right to information is the life of democracy.”
“When the media becomes stronger, iniquity cannot be done because it is not possible to hide,” Min Ko Naing, one of the country’s most prominent activists and a leader of the 88 Generation Students, told The Irrawaddy.
Elsewhere, journalists in Mandalay attempted to organize a protest but were denied permission from the relevant township police department, which said the demonstration would likely disrupt traffic and create unwanted conflict. The police urged journalists to respect the judiciary, saying Ma Khine could appeal the township court’s verdict to a higher court.
Though they did not proceed with their planned protest, a group of journalists reportedly gathered peacefully on Tuesday in front of a prison in Mandalay to show their condemnation of Ma Khine’s imprisonment.
International and local press-related groups have urged the judiciary to reconsider her case.
“The ruling is not just,” Myint Kyaw, general secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network, which led the protest in Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy. “Criminal charges have been placed on a journalist for doing her job. It’s infringing on the right to report freely. We have urged and issued a statement to reconsider the case.
“An ordinary citizen, even non-journalists, have the right to appeal an unjust ruling. If we keep silent about this case, it will set a precedent and more journalists may be imprisoned later in similar circumstances under criminal charges.”
Media freedom has improved in Burma since the former military regime ceded power to a nominally civilian government in 2011. Journalists are no longer required to submit articles to the government for prior censorship, and private daily newspapers have been allowed to publish for the first time in decades. Journalists have also been released from prisons, but some publications have been sued for defamation, including by government agencies. Draft laws have been submitted to Parliament that have drawn criticism from journalists as being too restrictive.
Ma Khine’s arrest being the first of a reporter under Thein Sein’s administration.
Aye Min, a Supreme Court lawyer from the Myanmar Lawyers Network, questioned the ruling in Ma Khine’s case, saying a person can only be convicted of trespass if he or she enters a house without permission.
“Ma Khine was asked to leave the house after she was permitted to enter and have a conversation. The punishment should not exceed a fine of 10,000 kyats [US$10],” he said.
The Constitution, he added, guarantees the right to free speech and expression. “It’s a contradiction if journalists cannot openly write and reveal information,” he said.
Thiha Saw, a member of the interim Press Council, said he believed the government still wanted to control media.
“We have urged those who may be concerned to ensure a fair verdict and the free right to report,” said the well-known Rangoon-based journalist, who is in regular communication with the Information Ministry in his work with the Press Council, an interim body of mostly journalists and some government representatives that has drafted a proposed law that lays out reporters’ rights and responsibilities.
He added that it was important for journalists to understand media ethics to avoid lawsuits.
Meanwhile, the Burmese-language People Image Journal is facing pressure from the government for publishing an editorial and news articles critical of Thein Sein. The weekly journal was warned by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Friday after publishing an editorial that accused the president of holding power over the judiciary, as well as news articles that said a change in president, or “king,” could occur this year, ahead of the general election in 2015.
The Ministry of Information plans to issue a warning to the journal about media ethics, according to presidential spokesman Ye Htut, who is the deputy minister of the information.
Additional reporting by Thuzar.