Decision today extended pre-trial bail of journalist Swe Win, next hearing Monday
(Yangon, October 27, 2017)—The Myanmar authorities should immediately and unconditionally drop charges against journalist Swe Win, said Fortify Rights today. Swe Win faces criminal defamation charges for criticizing the extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu on Facebook. He is currently free on bail, which the Mandalay District Court reaffirmed in a hearing today. His next pre-trial hearing in the Mahar Aung Myay Township Court is scheduled for October 30.
“The ongoing judicial harassment of Swe Win is an indicator of the threat every journalist faces in Myanmar,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The Myanmar authorities should drop these charges against Swe Win, amend unjust laws, and stop criminalizing journalists’ work.”
Swe Win criticized the extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu in a Facebook post in February 2017, in response to which Kyaw Myo Shwe—a citizen of Myanmar—filed a complaint against Swe Win at the Maha Aungmyay Township police station in Mandalay on March 7.
On July 30, Myanmar Police arrested Swe Win at Yangon International Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Bangkok. The police transferred him to Oboe Prison and charged him with criminal defamation under Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law. The law criminalizes “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.” The Maha Aung Myay Township Court granted Swe Win bail on July 31, 2017.
On August 29, the plaintiff, Kyaw Myo Shwe, filed an application in the Mandalay District Court asking the court to reconsider the Mahar Aung Myay Township Court’s decision to grant bail. The District Court held a hearing on the application on October 13 and issued a decision this morning to allow Swe Win’s release on bail.
Swe Win faces up to three years’ imprisonment if convicted.
Swe Win has travelled from Yangon to Mandalay for ten scheduled pre-trial court appearances at the Mahar Aung Myay Township Court, facing Wirathu supporters at the court. Several of these hearings were adjourned because the plaintiff, Kyaw Myo Shwe, failed to appear. Kyaw Myo Shwe has also failed to provide a witness list to the court. The plaintiff’s recent application to revoke Swe Win’s bail appears to be another attempt to delay the trial.
“Swe Win has the right to bail under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law,” Swe Win’s legal advisor, Khin Maung Myint, told Fortify Rights before today’s decision. “There is no legitimate basis for the application and the District Court should reject the appeal.”
Swe Win’s case is part of a worrying trend in Myanmar. During the last several months, the Myanmar authorities have charged at least four other journalists with criminal defamation or unlawful association for carrying out their legitimate work. In March, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, received communications regarding around 170 individuals imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. She stated that the increasing use of Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act (2013) is particularly worrying, with more than 45 cases reported, most in the last year.
Although the Myanmar authorities dropped the charges against the four journalists in September, the chilling effect remains, Fortify Rights said
Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law is contrary to international human rights law, including Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right to freedom of expression. Restrictions on freedom of expression are permissible only when they are provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim.
International human rights law also protects the right to a fair trial. Article 14 of the ICCPR provides that everyone shall be “tried without undue delay.” The repeated delays in Swe Win’s case violates his right to an expeditious trial.
The Government of Myanmar should the drop charges against Swe Win and other journalists exercising their legitimate rights to free speech and decriminalize defamation by amending section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.
“Journalists play a vital role in imparting and disseminating information,” said Matthew Smith. “Parliament should immediately amend the law to decriminalize defamation and the authorities should put an end to this crackdown.”