Fifth journalist detained in the country in two months
(Yangon, July 31, 2017)—Myanmar authorities should immediately drop charges against journalist Swe Win, who was arrested by police at Yangon International airport last night, July 30, said Fortify Rights today. The authorities released Swe Win on bail today.
Swe Win is the fifth journalist arrested and wrongfully detained in Myanmar in the last two months. He faces criminal defamation charges for comments he made on Facebook about extremist Buddhist-monk Wirathu in February.
“Swe Win is a principled journalist with a towering reputation for exposing injustice,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “This is yet another feeble attempt to criminalize journalism. Journalism is not a crime.”
Myanmar Police arrested Swe Win, 40, while he attempted to pass through immigration at Yangon Airport to take a scheduled flight to Bangkok, Thailand. The authorities took him to Mingalardon police station and detained him overnight at Insein Prison. The Myanmar Police applied to a court in Mandalay for a warrant to transfer him to Mandalay. He was transferred to Oboe Prison in Mandalay today and then released on bail.
Swe Win is a prominent investigative journalist and chief editor at Myanmar Now, a not-for-profit, independent news service in Myanmar.
Supporters of extremist Buddhist-monk Wirathu targeted Swe Win in recent months with death threats, criminal complaints, and violent assault for his investigative work.
On March 7, Wirathu supporter Kyaw Myo Shwe filed a defamation complaint against Swe Win under section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law at the Maha Aungmyay Township police station in Mandalay for comments Swe Win posted on Facebook about Wirathu. In February, Swe Win stated on Facebook that Wirathu’s “monkhood was over” after Wirathu thanked the assassins of prominent National League for Democracy lawyer Ko Ni. A hired gunman assassinated Ko Ni on January 29 at Yangon International airport. A February 27 Myanmar Now article quoted senior Buddhist abbot Sein Dago Wu saying that Wirathu’s comments praising the assassins “transgressed the Pārājika rules,” which are guidelines explaining grounds for expulsion from the Buddhist Sangha.
The penalty for violations of section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law includes up to three years’ imprisonment for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.”
After his arrest last night, Swe Win told reporters, apparently referring to section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law: “It is good that this has happened. I have got to tackle this. The law should not exist…It will be good for the citizens as well.”
On June 29, Fortify Rights and 60 Myanmar and international organizations called on the Myanmar authorities to repeal section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law in accordance with international human rights laws and standards governing freedom of expression. Myanmar Parliament should immediately repeal Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, Fortify Rights reiterated today.
Another Wirathu supporter, Thet Myo Oo, filed a related complaint against Swe Win on March 19, claiming that Swe Win insulted Buddhism during a March 8 press conference when Swe Win reportedly responded to a question about the Facebook post, saying: “They say [my post] is defamatory, but does [U Wirathu] have the dignity to be defamed? He is endlessly cursing across the country. Does this person have dignity?”
Thet Myo Oo filed a complaint against Swe Win under section 295 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes insulting religion. In late April, the Kyauktada Township Court in Yangon dismissed the complaint against Swe Win on the basis that a complaint under section 295 in this case should come directly from Wirathu.
On March 10, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka committee banned Wirathu from public sermons for one year for repeated hate speech against other religions.
Swe Win reportedly received further threats related to his reporting on Wirathu. For example, on March 14, three assailants reportedly verbally threatened and attempted to physically assault Swe Win in Sanchaung Township, Yangon. Swe Win filed a complaint with the local police station. Fortify Rights was unable to confirm if police conducted an investigation into the incident.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture issued a letter on April 5 stating that Swe Win had not violated any law with regard to his comments about Wirathu but was “carry[ing] out his job as a journalist,” after Swe Win’s request for a summary of the ministry’s views on the charges against him.
Myanmar has wrongfully detained four other journalists since June. On June 26, the Myanmar Army arrested Myanmar journalists Lawi Weng, also known as Thein Zaw, who works for The Irrawaddy, and Aye Naing and Pyae Bone Aung, who are with the Democratic Voice of Burma, along with four other men in northern Shan State. The journalists face charges under section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for attending an event hosted by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army during the course of their work. If convicted, Lawi Weng, Aye Naing, and Pyae Bone Aung face up to three years in prison. Police also arrested journalist Kyaw Min Swe from the Voice journal in June under section 66(d) regarding a satirical article that mocked a military propaganda film.
The right to freedom of expression is protected under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Restrictions on freedom of expression are permissible only when provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim. Article 6 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders also states “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to know, seek, obtain, receive and hold information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including having access to information.”
The charges against Swe Win represent an overly broad application of a vaguely worded criminal law in violation of the right to freedom of expression, Fortify Rights said.
The right to freedom of expression promotes transparency, accountability, and the protection of other human rights that are foundational for any society. Myanmar authorities should immediately drop the charges against Swe Win and release the four other journalists still detained, Fortify Rights said.
“A free press serves the public interest,” said Matthew Smith. “What we’re seeing now is a crackdown on journalists. Parliament should repeal the legal framework used to target the legitimate work of journalists and put an end to this crackdown.”
Swe Win has a history of exposing injustices and human rights violations in Myanmar. Most recently, Swe Win’s investigation into the assassination of Ko Ni published on February 1 alleged that Aung Win Khaing and Aung Zaw Win recruited gunman Kyn Lin, who carried out the killing. The police subsequently arrested Aung Zaw Win and two other suspects, Zeya Phyo and Aung Win Tun, for harboring Aung Zaw Win. Aung Win Khaing’s whereabouts are unknown.
In 2016, Swe Win reported on prison labor camps operated by Myanmar authorities where “current and past practices…have resulted in abuses, corruption, exploitation, and the deaths of possibly thousands of convicts.” As a result of Swe Win’s exposé, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee visited and reported on concerns related to prison labor camps in Myanmar.
In September, Swe Win reported on the human trafficking and enslavement of two girls, aged 16 and 17, in Yangon, which led to the resignation of four members of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) after they negotiated a controversial financial settlement for the two girls but failed to call for or ensure accountability. Swe Win called for the MNHRC to be “restructured to ensure a better outcome in the future.”