YANGON (Reuters) – Police in Myanmar said on Monday they had detained one of the country’s best known journalists, months after a social media clash with firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu, as concerns rise over freedom of expression.
Swe Win, chief editor of news agency Myanmar Now, was detained at Yangon’s airport on Sunday evening at the request of police in the central city of Mandalay, said Lieutenant Colonel Myint Htwe of Yangon regional police.
“The Mandalay police informed us that Swe Win was trying to run away and to detain him at the airport,” said Myint Htwe.
Swe Win — a renowned investigative reporter who has written critically about Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar — was transferred to Mandalay on Monday, he added.
The journalist was expecting to be in court in Mandalay on Wednesday over a Facebook post that cited criticism of Wirathu, the Mandalay monk infamous for fierce anti-Muslim rhetoric, Swe Win’s lawyer said.
The arrest brings the number of reporters in detention in Myanmar to five, despite Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi taking power last year amid a transition from full military rule.
The military retains control of the police, key ministries and a quarter of lawmakers’ seats. Observers say the courts also still lack independence.
Legal advisor Khin Maung Myint said authorities had not told Swe Win he was barred from leaving the country, he said.
“He planned to come back the next day” after dealing with work matters in Bangkok, said Khin Maung Myint.
The case dates from March, when a follower of Wirathu filed a complaint against Swe Win under article 66(d) of Myanmar’s telecommunications law after the reporter posted on Facebook quoting a Buddhist abbot who accused Wirathu of breaking monastic rules.
Wirathu, in his own Facebook post, had publicly praised the killers of Ko Ni, a Muslim expert on constitutional law who was assassinated on Jan. 29.
Article 66(d) sets out punishments of up to three years in prison for anyone convicted of “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening” using a telecoms network.
After an outcry over the article’s broad application, Suu Kyi’s government has proposed amendments — narrowing its scope and allowing judges to grant bail — but free speech advocates say it should be repealed entirely.
Swe Win “should be in a newsroom, not behind bars,” said Matthew Smith, co-founder of advocacy group Fortify Rights, adding that the situation for journalists in Myanmar was “definitely worsening”.
Kyaw Min Swe, an editor at the Voice journal, is also on trial charged with 66(d) over a satirical article that poked fun at the military.
Three other reporters are on trial in the northeast for allegedly breaking the law by attending an event hosted by an ethnic armed group.
“This is a trend, a crackdown, an attempt to silence critics,” Smith said.
Reporting by Shoon Naing, additional reporting and writing by Simon Lewis; Editing by Michael Perry