A man in Thae Chaung, Myanmar uses the internet in this February 25, 2015, file photo. (Reuters/Minzayar Minzayar)
A man in Thae Chaung, Myanmar uses the internet in this February 25, 2015, file photo. (Reuters/Minzayar Minzayar)

Myanmar journalist arrested at airport ahead of criminal defamation trial

Bangkok, July 31, 2017–Myanmar authorities should drop all charges against Swe Win, the editor of the news website Myanmar Now, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police at Yangon’s international airport yesterday arrested the journalist on charges of attempting to flee the country before his trial next month on criminal defamation charges, news reports said.

Police apprehended Swe Win before he boarded a flight to neighboring Thailand, according to news reports. Today authorities brought him to the central city of Mandalay, where his trial on defamation charges is scheduled to begin on August 7, his lawyer, Khin Maung Myint, told Reuters.

Yangon police Lt. Col. Myint Htwe said the arrest was made at the request of Mandalay City authorities. “The Mandalay police informed us that Swe Win was trying to run away and to detain him at the airport,” he told reporters.

Lawyer Khin Maung Myint said court officials had not informed his client that he was barred from leaving the country, and that the journalist had intended to return to Myanmar from Thailand today, after making work arrangements for the time he would be on trial, reports said. He was released on bail today, according to news reports.

“We call on Myanmar authorities to drop all charges against Swe Win and to stop detaining journalists on spurious defamation charges,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. “The criminalization of news reporting harks to the dark days of the previous military regime’s censorship and is embarrassingly out of step with Myanmar’s supposed transition to democracy.”

Swe Win is one of several journalists who face possible three-year prison sentences on charges pending under article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, a provision that criminalizes online speech deemed as defamatory.

“It is good that this has happened. I have got to tackle this. The law should not exist,” Swe Win told reporters at a police station in Mandalay last night. “It will be good for the citizens as well.”

The charges were initially filed in March by Kyaw Myo Shwe, a follower of Buddhist monk U Wirathu, over comments Swe Win posted on Facebook accusing the monk of breaking monastic rules by praising the January 29 assassination of a Muslim lawyer. Any citizen of Myanmar can file defamation charges for material published online under the Telecommunication Law’s broad provisions.

In another emblematic prosecution under article 66(d), Kyaw Min Swe, editor of The Voice newspaper, has been held in pretrial detention since June 2 on charges filed by the military for an article the newspaper published lampooning an army-produced propaganda film. Kyaw Min Swe has been refused at least eight separate bail requests, according to news reports.

Three other journalists–Aye Naing and Pyae Phone Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma news agency, and Thein Zaw of The Irrawaddy media group–were arrested on June 26 on charges filed by the military under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act for reporting on an event hosted by a rebel armed group. A court on July 28 refused to release them pending the conclusion of their trial, according to news reports.