RANGOON — A three-month prison term imposed last week on a Burmese reporter has been criticized by local and international press freedom groups, who say the punishment given to Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, a journalist with Rangoon-based Eleven Media, is too harsh.
The case is believed to be the first imprisonment of a reporter since President Thein Sein’s reformist government in 2012 released jailed journalists and lifted long-standing media restrictions.
Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, who is also known as Ma Khine, was sued by Loikaw-based lawyer Aye Aye Phyo after an argument allegedly took place while the reporter was seeking comments on an alleged video piracy case in late October.
On Dec. 17, the Loikaw Township Court in Karenni State sentenced the reporter to three months imprisonment on charges of trespassing in Aye Aye Phyo’s home as well as defaming and using abusive language against her.
Eleven Media and the detained reporter deny any wrongdoing in the case and the media organization condemned the sentencing as “a miscarriage of justice, a direct threat to journalists and an attack on press freedom.”
Eleven Media says it sent letters about the case to various local and international press freedom groups, as well as to Burma’s President Thein Sein and to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the head of the parliamentary committee covering rule of law.
Meanwhile, Eleven Media chief editor Wai Phyo visited Loikaw Prison on Friday and had a 30-minute conversation with Ma Khine, who was said to have been surprised by the prison term as she had expected to be fined.
“She said she is not guilty of all these charges as they alleged at the court,” Wai Phyo told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “We are going to appeal in this case.”
“The charges and punishment are not justified,” he said, adding that the risk of getting sued over defamation and trespassing could deter Burmese reporters from carrying out their work.
“This case threatens freedom of the press,” he warned, adding that defamation charges should not carry heavy criminal punishment. “A person should never be sent to jail under article 500 [defamation]… If you sentence someone under article 500, then how can anyone work as a journalist?” he said.
Eleven Media CEO Than Htut Aung was awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom for 2013, by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers WAN-IFRA 2013.
Eleven has, however, been criticized for its coverage of violence in Burma’s western Arakan state, usually referring to the Rohingya, a Muslim group regarded by the Burmese Government as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, as ‘Bengalis.’
In recent days, Eleven Media’s criticism of the Ma Khine jailing was backed-up by local and international media organizations.
Myint Kyaw, a member of Burma’s Interim Press Council, a journalist organization set up with government backing in Sept. 2012, said the punishment was too harsh.
“I don’t know the details,” he told The Irrawaddy, referring to the specifics of the case against Ma Khine. “But as far as I know the punishment is too much for a journalist.”
Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), told The Irrawaddy in an emailed note that, “The conviction under three sections of the Penal Code, including defamation, is unnecessary and disproportionate to the alleged incident.”
The incident could prompt others to use the courts to curb the press, argues SEAPA, a regional press freedom body.
“We anticipate that legal instruments such as these will be used by individuals and organizations to prevent the media from doing its work,” said Gayathry Venkiteswaran, who cautioned that “the incident serves as a reminder to journalists who should conduct themselves with utmost transparency and integrity to avoid any risks of legal threats.”
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and the World Editors Forum, in a statement on Dec. 19, urged “an immediate investigation into the sentence and to ensure there has been no political interference or mishandling of the case.
“We are concerned that this type of punishment sends a chilling effect amongst the Myanmar media, a particularly worrying development ahead of elections in 2015,” the group said.
Eleven Media reported last week that local NLD personnel were linked to the case. Asked by The Irrawaddy about the sentencing, NLD spokesman Nyan Win said that “this is a private matter and nothing to do with NLD, so we have no comment to make.”
The punishment has prompted suspicions among Burma media watchers that there could have been some political interference with the courts. “We suspect some influence on the local authority or judiciary,” Myint Kyaw surmised.
Earlier Eleven Media claimed that the verdict could have been down to editorials it had run recently alleging corruption in Burma’s judiciary. A recent report on lawyers in Burma by the International Commission of Jurist (ICJ) described graft in the sector as widespread.
“The legal profession in Myanmar has low public and professional standing, due to a history of eroded respect for the rule of law, political oppression, and endemic corruption,” the ICJ wrote.
The sentencing comes after loosening of Burma’s long-standing press restrictions by Thein Sein’s government, with the abolition of censorship and the reintroduction of private-run daily print newspapers in April.
And after months of acrimonious wrangling, several new media bills could become law in the coming months, including the press council’s News Media Bill as well as the government’s Printing and Publishing Enterprise Bill.
However, a new public service media law is unlikely to be passed anytime soon, according to Burma’s Information Minister Aung Kyi. The minister told The Irrawaddy in a late November interview that it could be late 2015 before Burma has a public service media to replace the current state mouthpieces such as MRTV and The New Light of Myanmar.