Eleven Media Group’s CEO and chief editor have been arrested over an opinion piece that appeared to accuse Yangon’s chief minister of corruption.
By HTUN KHAING & SU MYAT MON | FRONTIER
YANGON REGION Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein has provoked a stunning showdown with one of the country’s largest media groups, launching a criminal case against Eleven Media’s chief executive officer over suggestions that the National League for Democracy stalwart accepted a US$100,000 watch from a prominent businessman.
Phyo Min Thein said at a press conference on November 9 that he would file a complaint to police against Eleven CEO and founder U Than Htut Aung and chief editor Ko Wai Phyo under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act.
The complaint relates to an opinion piece posted to Than Htut Aung’s personal Facebook account on November 6 that was also published on the Eleven Media Facebook page.
Police sent a letter of summons to Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo on November 10, instructing them to report to Tarmwe Police Station for an interview, but they failed to show up. Instead, Eleven Media general manager U Htein Lin went to the station. He declined to reveal the nature of his discussions with police. Police said they were watching the company’s office and the homes of the two suspects, but were unsure of their whereabouts.
At 1pm on November 11, Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo handed themselves in to Yangon’s Eastern District Police Office and were transferred under armed guard to Tarmwe Police Station. Standing outside the station, Wai Phyo yelled to the waiting reporters, “I will support Eleven and the truth. Everyone should stand with the truth!”
They were brought to court at 4pm and remanded to Insein Prison until the next hearing.
The article in question, titled “Myanmar a year after the Nov 8 poll”, cited reports on social media that an elected minister earning a monthly salary of about US$2500 a month had been seen wearing a $100,000 Patek Philippe watch.
The report said the gift had allegedly been given by a businessman who had been released from prison after serving a sentence for drug trafficking, and whose “new city” project had been recently approved by the regional government.
The article, in English, was also distributed through the Asia News Network and published on the websites of the Singapore-based Straits Times and The Nation from Thailand.
It didn’t take long for readers to join the dots and identify the businessman in question as U Maung Weik, and elected minister as Phyo Min Thein.
The following day the chief minister demanded an explanation from Eleven Media, which was not forthcoming.
At the November 9 press conference, Phyo Min Thein said the report was “fabricated” and invited Eleven to provide evidence to substantiate the allegations. He said that after considering the issue he had decided to respond by filing a case to police under the Telecommunications Law.
Section 66(d) prohibits actions that “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate” any other person, and carries a potential three-year prison term.
The case appears to be the first time a senior NLD official has used the controversial law. While some section 66(d) defamation cases have been filed against people who allegedly posted defamatory material about State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or President U Htin Kyaw, the complaints to police were made by local members, not the party leadership.
Most cases have been initiated by the military against people who are perceived to have insulted that Tatmadaw or commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (see related story on page 10). In recent months calls have grown for the section to be repealed or amended, and last week a member of the parliament’s Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues said the body was reviewing the law.
Phyo Min Thein said the Telecommunications Law case only related to the posts on social media, and that he had filed a complaint to the Myanmar Press Council in regard to the Myanmar-language article published in Daily Eleven.
The press council responded in a statement that it can only mediate cases that are not before the courts.
MPC vice chairman U Aung Hla Tun said the Media Law approved in 2014 makes no distinction between print and online media when filing a complaint.
“We can’t do anything right now unless the lawsuit is withdrawn,” he said.
Maung Weik, whose Capital City Development was one of three companies that won a tender in January to build Yangon’s southwest new city, also called a press conference to deny the allegations. However, he said he would not file any complaint to police over the article.
The case appears to have the support of at least some senior figures in the NLD, even as the party moves to review the law and possibly amend or remove section 66(d).
U Win Htein told the BBC that Eleven Media’s article “purposefully spoke ill of others”. He added that Phyo Min Thein wears a Rolex watch valued at around K3 million (about $2300).
Top photo: Eleven Media Group CEO Dr Than Htut Aung is escorted by police from Tarmwe Police Station on Friday afternoon. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe / Frontier)