Swe Win, the editor of the Myanmar Now website, is the latest journalist to be arrested in the supposedly democratic country as the government struggles with the principles of free speech. He gained notoriety for investigative reports on two maids tortured at Ava Tailors last year and was awarded the President’s Certificate of Honour.
“Swe Win is a principled journalist with a towering reputation for exposing injustice,” said Matthew Smith, head of Fortify Rights. “This is yet another feeble attempt to criminalise journalism. Journalism is not a crime.”
Swe Win’s lawyer said his client was detained on Sunday and taken to Mandalay as he prepared to board a flight to Thailand to make arrangements for the news service while he was preoccupied with his trial.
A Mandalay police officer said Swe Win the court would begin hearing his case on August 7.
A follower of Wirathu, the Mandalay-based monk sometimes known as the “Buddhist bin Laden”, brought the charges under the notorious Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law.
Any citizen can use Section 66(d) to sue for alleged online abuse, regardless of whether they were the subject of the remarks. It carries a threat of three years in prison and suspects are normally refused bail, which is deeply controversial for alleged defamation, meaning it is often used to jail journalists and political activists during prolonged trials.
The section has come to be interpreted as any use of the internet, so sharing a Facebook post that casts someone in a negative light can be grounds for prosecution. Facebook is heavily used in Myanmar.
Wirathu and his fundamentalist Patriotic Association of Myanmar, abbreviated to Ma Ba Tha, is known for his inflammatory speeches against the Muslim minority and for inspiring intense bloodshed since 2012.
The military controls the Ministry of Home Affairs and therefore the judiciary and police under the 2008 Constitution, which was drafted by the junta.
Swe Win criticised Wirathu on social media, accusing him of violating the Buddhist code of monastic discipline for his comments about the January assassination of prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni, who was a legal adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Activists say the number of lawsuits filed under Section 66(d) under the NLD has increased significantly. The Telecom-Research Team, an independent NGO, said there had been at least 80 lawsuits since the NLD took power last April. More than a dozen resulted in actual charges being filed.
The face of Buddhist terror: Wirathu. Picture credit: Vimeo