Briefing of the Chief Editor of The Daily Eleven newspaper on the lawsuit against 17 editors filed by Information Ministry

Wai Phyo, the chief editor of The Daily Eleven newspaper. (Photo-EMG)

Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon.

I want to explain in sections about the lawsuit filed against 17 editors from the Daily Eleven newspaper. We have been charged with contempt of court at the Mandalay Regional Court. The charges were filed as a result of running a story titled “Court started hearing plaintiff’s witness on the lawsuit case filed by the Ministry of Information against the Daily Eleven and Weekly Eleven News Journal, plaintiff Kyaw Soe admitted that the Ministry of Information bought a printing press for €700,000 in 2009” on the cover of the Daily Eleven newspaper on its March 21 issue. The accuser is Kyaw Soe, managing director of News and Periodical Enterprises under the Ministry of Information.

The 17 accused persons are the Daily Eleven newspaper’s publisher Dr Thein Myint, I (Chief Editor Wai Phyo), Sayar Myat Thit (Deputy Chief Editor), executive editors Ko Aung Myo Thu, Ko Than Zaw Tun, Ko Kyaw Zaw Linn (now the editor-in-charge), Ko Nay Htun Naing, Ko Oo (Mathematics), Ko Nayi Min, chief reporter Marn Thu Shein, senior editors Ko Zaw Zaw Aung, Ma A Nge Htwe - Here, her name has been written as ‘U A Nge Htwe’ in the summons letter from the court – Ko Hein Min Latt, Ko Soe Htet Khine, Ko Nay (Mann), Ma Lin Lin Khaing, and Ma Nwe Yin Aye.

First of all, what I would like to explain is who wrote the story that led to the lawsuit, how it was written, why it was written, and who is the most responsible.

Before publishing the news story, I had two reporters collected information for the story. It was edited after the information has been collected. I cannot name them because I was the last person to edit the story before it was printed. I am the most responsible person concerning this story. That’s why I will take the responsibility and face this lawsuit. None of the editorial members knew about the previous lawsuit, against five people including out CEO filed by the Ministry of Information on defamation ground, better than me. This is because the editorial members are carrying out separate duties for their respective fields. I have taken the responsibility to edit the court news related to the lawsuit filed against us by the Ministry of Information as necessary. We consult with our lawyers and the editorial team members before and after writing the story if needed.

I will explain why we wrote this news story. This story was run on March 21 issue. Our last court hearing before the publication of this news was on March 19. In this incident, we had not written about the case in a rush as we did not run the story on the next day after the hearing.

I will give a full explanation of why we published this information. I will start with a brief summary of the situations during the time when we were first sued by the Ministry of Information. The first court hearing session was commenced on October 10, 2014. Our defendant lawyers were able to cross examine the plaintiff Kyaw Soe starting from December 16 hearing. We have to carefully scrutinise [the news] concerning the publication of news about cases where cross examinations have been conducted. But, regarding the news writing, I have the responsibility concerning court issues as I am among one of the accused and I am also the chief editor of the newspaper. When our defense lawyers were allowed to do cross examinations, each of our lawyers asked plaintiff Kyaw Soe whether or not the Ministry of Information bought a printing press for the price of over 700,000 euro under former Minister Kyaw Hsan’s term. Dr Thein Myint’s defense lawyer Kyi Myint asked that question once during the trial session on December 30, 2014. My defense lawyer Soe Tint Yi asked the question once during the trial session on January 22, 2015 while Sayar Myat Thit’s defense lawyer Khin Maung Nyo asked a similar question during his trial session.

Whenever this question is asked, plaintiff Kyaw Soe answered that he knew about the purchase of printing press but he did not know the price. However, on March 5, 2014, his answer changed. During the court hearing, when Nay Htun Naing’s lawyer Kyaw Soe Moe questioned, Kyaw Soe said it was true that 700,000 euro worth printing press was bought. I will quote the exact wordings of the question and answer. When defendant’s lawyer asked, Kyaw Soe testified “Before we bought the printing press won at tender, it is true that the News and Periodical Enterprises bought a printing press in 2009 and it was worth 700,000 euros.” There were others that Kyaw Soe answered, too. He also testified, “The presses were bought with state budget and if something is wrong at purchasing, the public’s taxed revenue may loss. The media, the fourth pillar, has the right to point out and discuss not to occur waste in public fund.” But it was on March 5th trial. Despite of having these answers, any news story about the hearing was not published between March 5 till March 19th trial. On March 19, questioning of plaintiff’s witness was started. It was the day Win Zaw Htay, Director (Admin) of News and Periodical Enterprises was questioned. Defendant lawyer Kyi Myint asked about the purchase of 700,000 euro worth printing press. At first, Win Zaw Oo said he didn’t know when asking about purchasing of 700,000 euro worth printing press that plaintiff Kyaw Soe had testified. He answered it was right only when the lawyer asked him again after informing that it was testified by Kyaw Soe during the hearing on March 5th.

Therefore, only after questioning twice, it led to writing the story since plaintiff and plaintiff’s witness officially answered on March 5th and March 19th court hearings. In addition, the purchase of 700,000 euro worth printing press is an important fact for the case filed against us.

Before writing the story, we formally applied for the official copy of Kyaw Soe’s testimony on the purchase of 700,000 euro worth printing press from Pobbathiri Township Court and the exact words in the official copy were used in out story. We also discussed about it with our lawyer.

Now, I would like to talk about the recent lawsuit filed under the contempt of court. We found no objections stating that the testimony included in our story was wrong. Kyaw Soe’s letter to the court states that when writing the truth, in the public opinion, it might lead to a conception that the court should decide ‘not-guilty’, thus our action is deemed to be a contempt of court. This is the summary of the case filed against us. Now, I will continue to talk about the Judiciary acting in a way that can be considered to be oppressive toward media including us.

While we are at it, I would like to recount my experiences with the court. We feel that the judicial sector considerably put pressure on us once we were being sued but take a long while to proceed lawsuits that we filed. In some cases, it took the plaintiff several months to appear at the court. At a time when we were sued, especially in the lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Information, the court quickly accepted the case and speedily summoned us. Mandalay Regional Supreme Court ordered us for the first hearing on 19 June, and the summon letter was submitted on June 15. Therefore, we believe that pressure was put on us to appear at the court. A case in point is that elderly persons of over 60 were included in the case filed under Section 500 of the Penal Code when we have the court proceedings in Nay Pyi Taw. Some of them were difficult to go to the court on health grounds. Nevertheless, we travel more than 200 miles to appear at the court for every hearing as we respect the law. The hearings usually take two to three hours and the court said that the proceeding would continue to the next day if it cannot be done in one day. For that reason we had to send a letter to the Union Chief Justice requesting to proceed our legal case just like other cases without putting any pressures. 

The next point I would like to tell is that the MOI sued us twice—defamation under Section 500 of the Penal Code and contempt of court. The first charge was against five members and the second against 17. 

Tamwe Township judge rejected a lawsuit that we filed against State-owned newspapers, Myanma Alin and Kyehmon, for a libel on Eleven Media Group as it went against the Section 197 (1) of the Code of the Criminal Procedure. The situation was the same for another lawsuit we filed at the Pobbathiri Township Court in Nay Pyi Taw. The filing was rejected saying it was against Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. We personally went through these experiences. 

On the contrary, the journalists were tried under several different laws and imprisoned. In some cases, imprisonments were sentenced even though other cases under the same law were concluded with a lighter punishment. Especially the arrest and the imprisonment to the journalists were on the increase after 2013. Our Loikaw-based reporter Ma Khine sentenced for a three-month imprisonment after being tried for trespass, threat and abusive words. Reporter Zaw Pe (a.k.a) Thura Thet Tin of DVB news agency was sentenced to one year imprisonment after being charged for disturbing a civil servant and trespass. His prison sentence was reduced from one year to three months after a plea on his sentence. Five media professionals from the Unity Journal including their CEO received a ten-year imprisonment, but three years were reduced from the respective sentences. Five journalists from Bi Mon Te Nay Journal are serving a prison term. Recently-released journalists Than Htaik Thu and Hsan Moe Tun were sentenced to a two-month jail term after being sued under Section 500 of the Penal Code, a case where we have never heard prison terms were sentenced. Later we were sued. Eleven media professionals from the chief editor position down to the distribution staff from Myanmar Thandawhsint Journal (Myanmar Herald) are now facing the trials after being sued. Now the Ministry of Information sued 17 of our editors and the number of accused is record high. Finally, chief reporter Shwe Hmone of Thamaga Journal was sued under Section 19 of Peaceful Assembly Law for an incident occurred six months ago. These displeased situations are not a good sign for the media profession. 

By looking at the cases, the lawsuits that MOI has filed against media community have a large number of accused persons.

The number of charges against the journalists has been on the rise since after Ye Htut became presidential spokesperson and Union Minister for Ministry of Information. Charges are against those concerned with the issue and those not concerned. It seems to pose a threat to the journalists so as not to do media profession. 

No matter how much the information minister says that press is free, the truth can be judged by looking at the cases of journalists being imprisoned and facing trials. It has been known to all that protests cropped up due to the oppression against the journalists. Due to such situations, Rupert Abbott, the Southeast Asia research director of Amnesty International on June 17 point out that the authorities are still relying on the same old tactics — arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time to muzzle those journalists who cover 'inconvenient' topics. According to Amnesty International, the government is using threats, harassment and imprisonment to intimidate the media ahead of the 2015 Election.

The MOI previously sued five of us under Section 500 of the Penal Code. Now it charged against 17 editors under contempt of court. Eleven journalists of Myanmar Thandawhsint Journal (Myanmar Herald) were sued. Such charges have been more and more common in the period from 2013 to 2015. Forty-seven journalists were sued and 14 imprisoned during the term of President Thein Sein. The number is higher than that of the previous military regime. The amount of journalists being imprisoned was lesser under the previous regime. Under the current quasi-civilian government, charges that government filed against others have become a record high. When the ministries sue, imprisonments are almost inevitable. Defamation under Section 500 of Penal Code can get away with a fine, but journalists received imprisonment. It seems if journalists were convicted, the highest possible punishment under the law is sentenced to them. Judging by the situations, the government is suspected of intentionally oppressing the journalists. In conclusion, we will send a request letter to the Union Chief Justice that the judicial sector should handle the case in a fair manner and it should not put pressure on the journalists.