UPDATED at 2:06 P.M. ET on 2018-10-29
Three journalists from Eleven Media Group detained on incitement charges were each freed on 10 million kyats (U.S. $6,300) bail Friday at Tamwe Township Court in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon.
Chief reporter Phyo Wai Win and managing editors Kyaw Zaw Lin and Nari Min had been arrested after the media outlet published an article with a critical focus on Yangon government spending.
Regional government director Aung Kyaw Khine filed a lawsuit on Oct. 9 against the journalists over an article published the day before in the Weekly Eleven News Journal about the government’s business dealings and budget.
Phyo Wai Win told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he will not cave in and apologize to the Yangon regional government as had been requested of him, and will instead stand trial.
The plaintiff, Aung Kyaw Khine, didn’t show up for Friday’s hearing for health reasons. RFA attempted to contact him for comment but was unable to reach him.
Explaining her decision to grant bail, judge Tin War War Thein told the court that she decided to free the three journalists because they had a responsibility to return to their jobs and were therefore not a flight risk.
“The court freed us by following the rule of law,” said Kyaw Zaw Lin. “I will stand trial if the Yangon regional government wants to pursue this case further.”
Phyo Wai Win said he is innocent.
“I am a reporter, and I wrote my articles based on accurate information,” he said.
The journalists' lawyer Kyi Myint argued that the government has no case.
“The president has given a clear order to try to settle the dispute through negotiations with the Myanmar Press Council,” he said. “The Yangon government has to take responsibility for this failure. They should follow the instructions of the president,” he said.
Myanmar President Win Myint issued a directive on Oct. 17 calling on the Yangon government to cooperate with the Myanmar Press Council and to try to resolve the complaint under the Media Law before taking it to court.
“They were freed because the president ordered it, so we can’t say it is a victory for the media and for people who want justice,” Thien Than Oo, a Myanmar-based lawyer, told RFA. “They’ve been freed on bail, so that means the government still wants them to stand trial.”
Political analyst Yan Myo said, “It is great that they are free right now, but the government still needs to throw out the case. If they don’t, the people will criticize them even more, because they are ignoring the direct orders of the country’s most powerful person.”
Sittwe resident jailed
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s crackdown on those critical of the government continued elsewhere Friday as a resident in Rakhine state's capital Sittwe was sentenced to six months in prison for his comments on social media.
Aung Than Wai wrote Facebook posts in May and June about a police crackdown that left seven people dead and injured 13 others during a demonstration in January in the ancient town of Mrauk-U. They were part of a larger group of about 4,000 ethnic Rakhines who tried to take over a local government building after a ceremony marking a nationalist Buddhist anniversary.
The posts called out Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine state government at the time, and raised questions as to who had ordered the crackdown and who should be held accountable.
Aung Than Wai was taken into custody on June 21.
“My basic rights have been violated. The constitution grants citizens freedom of expression,” Aung Than Wai told RFA.
“My Facebook posts just asked who the killers were. I was arrested and jailed, but nobody is taking any action against the killers,” he said.
More than two years after a transition to civilian rule under national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar has drawn criticism from both domestic and international press freedom watchdogs for its heavy-handed treatment of journalists.
In September, a Yangon court sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for violating a state secrets law while investigating a massacre of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state, despite sworn testimony that they had been set up, and the fact that their report was factual and led to the prosecution of soldiers for the killings.
Reported by Htet Arkar, Kyaw Zaw Win, Khin Khin Ei, and Min Thein Aung for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Eugene Whong.