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The Voice news journal will face criminal proceedings at the end of this month, after losing an appeal for defamation charges – brought by the Ministry of Mines over corruption allegations made against them in March – to be heard by Burma’s constitutional tribunal rather than a local court.
The journal’s chief editor, Kyaw Min Swe, faces up to two years in jail and an undisclosed fine for printing an article that cited an auditor’s report alleging the ministry had misappropriated billions of kyat in public funds.
Lawyers had appealed for the case to be heard by Burma’s constitutional tribunal – established to address legal disputes with constitutional relevance – but were overruled by the Dagon Township court on Wednesday.
Proceedings are now scheduled to begin on 28 June.
“We are going to appeal the ruling according to the judicial system – we will bring our proposal to the district court and if [doesn’t] succeed, then we’ll go to the Rangoon Divisional Court. We have the right to bring this as far as to the Supreme Court and we will use it,” said the publication’s lawyer Thein Nyunt. “Our motive is to prevent such lawsuits against the media, regarded as the fourth estate of the nation, by ministries in the future.”
Last month, a court ruled that the publication can protect the identity of the author of the contested article, but upheld the ministry’s defamation case in accordance with the penal code.
Rights groups have decried the decision, which they say highlights the fragility of media freedom in Burma since President Thein Sein embarked on a series of democratic reforms last year.
The country’s draconian censorship laws are set to be lifted later this month, when the military junta’s notorious Press Scrutiny and Registration Division is to be replaced by a press council. A new media law will also be presented to parliament in its forthcoming session. But activists and journalists are concerned about the many other problematic laws in place, including criminal defamation laws.
“It’s very dangerous and it shows how much reform still needs to be done,” Benjamin Ismail, Asia Coordinator at Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) told DVB. “Criminalising of speech is something that we strongly condemn, because it puts pressure on the media and pushes them towards self-censorship.”
Burma still has severely restrictive broadcasting and internet regulations, including the Electronics Act, which carries a penalty of 20 years for publishing information deemed subversive to the state. RSF is adamant that all regressive laws must be repealed, and the new press council must be completely independent from political interference.
Recent clashes in northern Arakan state have also cast a spotlight on the lack of responsible and accurate reporting in Burma, which Ismail says the new press council must also work to address.
“It should have authority, but it should not be able to censor material before it is released or broadcast,” said Ismail. “It should promote good practice and a positive dynamic in the media.”
The Voice is the only publication facing a lawsuit for mentioning the auditor’s report, which was also presented in parliament, leading to speculation that the attack was intended as a warning. They are being prosecuted under article 500 of the state penal code, which provides a broad and opaque definition of defamation.
A member of staff at the Voice Weekly previously told DVB that the publication has substantial evidence to back its claims.