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The chief editor and publisher of a Burmese newspaper were charged with defamation Thursday for reporting a graft probe into a government ministry, in a move likely to raise fears over media reforms.
The Voice Weekly was taken to court for defamation by the mining ministry over an article stating that the auditor-general’s office had discovered misappropriation of funds and fraud inside the government division.
“The court has accepted the charge,” said chief editor of The Voice, Kyaw Min Swe, urging protection for journalists “writing in the interest of the people”.
Under the country’s Printing Act 1962, both individuals and organisations can sue publications for defamation, in a country where for decades the judiciary acted as a tool of the junta and are still perceived as lacking independence.
But the law itself is in question amid sweeping changes in the fast-reforming nation. New Information Minister Aung Kyi recently told another Burmese newspaper the act would be repealed as part of an attempt at freeing a media long muted by some of the world’s most draconian censorship.
In August, Burma announced the end of pre-publication scrutiny by government officials, which previously applied to everything from newspapers to song lyrics and even fairy tales, in what was seen as a key step to greater freedom.
Thursday’s green-light for defamation proceedings, however, is a blow to that reform process, according to The Voice’s lawyer Thein Nyunt, who is also a lower house MP for the New National Democracy Party (NNDP).
“The lawsuit between the government and The Voice journal harms the reform process and destroys the image of the government. It should be resolved as fast as it can,” he said.
The case will next be heard on October 5.
Since taking office last year President Thein Sein has overseen a number of dramatic moves in Burma, such as the release of hundreds of political prisoners and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament.
The 1962 act saw many publishers, editors and journalists – as well as activists – sent to jail during almost half a century of military rule that ended last year.