The Mawlamyine Township Court in Mon State has sentenced two local journalists to two months in prison under section 500 of defamation charges. It is the first time for the journalists to have faced imprisonment on defamation charges in more than 100 years from the British colonial rule to successive Myanmar governments.
Township Court Judge Than Aung passed the sentence on Wednesday to Chief Editor Than Htaik Thu and Deputy Chief Reporter Hsan Moe Tun from The Myanmar Post.
Major Thein Zaw, a military MP from Mon State Parliament, filed a lawsuit against the two journalists under section 500 of the Penal Code last month for covering a news story that appeared on January 29, 2014. The story was entitled "A military MP says they have to take parliamentary seats because of low educational standards" by Thanlwin Maung Maung and Hsan Moe Tun.
"A court in Mon State sentenced Chief Editor Than Htaik Thu and Deputy Chief Reporter Hsan Moe Tun under section 500. The case happened with a military representative from Mon State Parliament. Thanlwin Maung Maung acted as a plaintiff witness. So, he was not regarded as a defendant. He is not from our journal. He is a freelance reporter," said Zin Thaw Naing, editor in charge from The Myanmar Post.
Maj. Thein Zaw filed the case as a plaintiff because the journal featured his remark in the news story. The court verdict came after a one-year trial.
However, the original story writer, Zaw Min Oo also called Thanlwin Maung Maung under his pen-name, did not face prosecution.
"We will continue to fight for justice. We will file an appeal for this. We will go up to the regional high court," commented Zin Thaw Naing.
Under President Thein Sein's government, journalists have been facing arrest and imprisonment most and it is the first time to have imprisoned the two journalists under section 500 for defamation.
Normally, Section 500 of the Penal Code, enacted in the British colonial period, stipulates that one can be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison, or pay a fine or both for defamation. However, prison sentences under that section were rarely seen even in the colonial era.
Some advocates say that from the post-independent period such as the parliamentary democracy era, the Revolutionary Council Government era and the Myanmar Socialist Programme Party era to successive governments after 1988, such cases were settled with a fine, and no journalists faced imprisonment under section 500.
Editorial members from The Myanmar Post said they printed a blacked-out cover issue on March 16 two days before imprisonment of their two journalists to denounce the President, his government and the Home Affairs Ministry for a recent violent crackdown on student protestors and intentional arrest of journalists.
"Imprisoning journalists under section 500 has never existed in any era. I strongly oppose it. At the meeting of the Press Council (Interim) to be held today, I will inform about more oppression of journalists," said Dr. Thein Myint, managing director of Eleven Media Group and member of the press council.
Under the Thein Sein government, 10 journalists were jailed in 2014 and 19 others are facing trials.
In July last year, five journalists from Unity Journal were sentenced to 10 years each in prison for violating State Official Secrets Act. In October also, five journalists from Bi-Mon Te Nay Journal were sentenced to two years in jail under Section 505 (b) for panicking State law and order and the public.
While the Bi-Mon Te Nay journalists were charged, a news media law was already passed. But they did not receive its protection and faced imprisonment instead under a law that is usually used for taking action against politicians.
Ministry of Information also filed a lawsuit against the publisher of Weekly Eleven Journal, the managing director, the chief editor, the deputy chief editor and an executive editor from Weekly Eleven Journal and The Daily Eleven under Section 500 of Penal Code for
defamation. The suit was filed by the managing director of the News and Periodicals Enterprise as a plaintiff. Moreover, 11 persons with the ranks ranging from the publisher to distribution staff from Myanmar Thandawsint (Herald Weekly) journal are facing a lawsuit filed by the head of office of the Ministry of Information, as a plaintiff under the News Media Law. The in- charge of the journal from a Bago Region branch of the journal is also being charged under the same law.
Under President Thein Sein's government, police and security forces have been targeting attacks against journalists in public protests and conflicts.
Myanmar is on the list of the top 10 worst jailers of journalists in 2014, according to a statement issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).