Myanmar journalists facing incitement charges get bail

Detained Myanmar journalist Phyo Wai Win (R) leaves the court compound after a hearing in Yangon on October 26, 2018. YE AUNG THU / AFP

Three Myanmar journalists accused of incitement were granted bail on Friday but must continue to fight the case involving a close confidant of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The three were arrested about six weeks after two Reuters reporters were each sentenced to seven years in prison in September, a high-profile case that provoked outrage around the world.

In this case the article, published earlier this month by Eleven Media, criticised the financial management of Yangon’s government run by Phyo Min Thein, the chief minister for the city and a staunch Suu Kyi ally.

Executive editors Kyaw Zaw Lin and Nayi Min and chief reporter Phyo Wai Win — who have spent the last two weeks in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison — stand by the report, which raised questions about funding for the city’s bus network.

“My report was fair and right. I just pointed out that the (Yangon government’s budgeting) process was wrong, but they thought that I abused them,” Phyo Wai Win told AFP at the court.

They were charged under article 505 (b), which criminalises published or circulated information that causes “fear or alarm to the public”.

It is one of many broadly worded provisions in the penal code that have been used against journalists in the country.

The trio could face up to two years in jail, if convicted.

In a rare move, Myanmar’s president intervened last week to urge the prosecutor to withdraw the charges and resolve the conflict through press council arbitration.

But the prosecutor did not turn up to Friday’s hearing due to a “health problem”, the judge told defence lawyer Kyee Myint, and so the case must continue.

The next hearing is set for 9 November.

Rights groups have long called for an overhaul of an array of Myanmar’s vague laws governing freedom of expression, and the case comes as journalism advocates decry shrinking space for independent reporting.

Dozens of reporters have been ensnared since Suu Kyi’s government came to power two years ago.

The harsh sentences for Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo came at the end of what was widely seen as a sham trial after they exposed the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims last year.

The cases have further tarnished the reputation of Suu Kyi, once lauded internationally for her commitment to the fight for human rights.

“In reality it is attacks on the media that cause public fear and alarm as they undermine hard-fought democratic gains in Myanmar,” Sean Bain, legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), told AFP.

In 2016, Eleven Media’s then editors were briefly jailed over a column that accused Phyo Min Thein of corruption, for which the paper later apologized.

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