Myanmar protest for journalistic freedom underway

Fired-up journalists displaying 'Freedom of the Press' armbands rally in the rain in opposition of a telecommunications law, possibly foreshadowing a larger public awareness movement. 

Thein Zaw/AP
Hla Phone, who received two years jail at Insein prison under the telecommunications law since November 2016, talks to journalists as he was released from Insein prison Wednesday, May 24, 2017, in Yangon, Myanmar. Two journalists currently undergo trial in a court in Yangon for defamation in a satirical article while their colleagues, outside, protest the telecommunications law that put them there.

Myanmar journalists sporting "Freedom of the Press" armbands gathered on Thursday to campaign against a law they say curbs free speech, at the start of a trial of two journalists who the Army is suing for defamation over a satirical article.

The rally by more than 100 reporters in the rain outside a court in Yangon was the first significant show of opposition to the telecommunications law, introduced in 2013, that bans the use of the telecoms network to "extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence, or intimidate."

Despite pressure from human rights monitors and Western diplomats, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which took power amid high hopes for democratic reform in 2016, after decades of hardline military rule, has retained the law.

The journalists said they were dismayed by the recent arrests of social media users whose posts were deemed distasteful, as well as of journalists critical of the military.

"At first, they were suing people over news articles and now they are suing even over a satirical article, showing how they are restricting the media," said A Hla Lay Thuzar, one of the founders of the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, which organized the rally.

She said that rather than staging a one-off protest, her group wants to launch a movement to raise public awareness of the issue and press the government to abolish the law.

The journalists on trial are the chief editor and a columnist of the Voice, one of Myanmar's largest dailies.

They were denied bail on the first day of their trial, meaning they may have to remain in custody.

"Obtaining bail is our right so we will keep fighting for it during next court dates until we get it," said Khing Maung Myint, who is representing the two journalists.

The telecommunications law was a main piece of legislation introduced by a semi-civilian administration of former generals which navigated Myanmar's transition from full military rule to the coming to power of Ms. Suu Kyi's government, from 2011 to 2016.

The protesting journalists said they would wear the armbands for the next 10 days to raise awareness about what they see as the threat to freedom of the press.

They are also planning to gather signatures for a petition to abolish the law, to be sent to Suu Kyi's office, the Army chief and parliament.

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