Defending the arrests of journalists from Eleven Media, the Yangon Region government in a statement claimed that the journalists were prosecuted for reporting based on wrong facts.
Myanmar police had on Wednesday arrested three journalists after their paper Eleven criticised the financial management of Yangon government, which is overseen by a protege of leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The latest arrests have sparked concerns over press freedom in Myanmar.
In a statement, Yangon Region government explained that they arrested the journalists and prosecuted them for an article written by Phyo Wai which appeared in the October 8 issue of weekly Eleven journal in which some facts were wrong.
The columnist wrote in the article that the shares of Yangon Metropolitan public company constituted by the Yangon Region government were kept in the name of an individual, M. Thaung, and this was the wrong procedure.
The statement issued by Region Government said: "Region Government Minister of Planning and Finance Myint Thaung got involved in the business of this company in representation of regional government and did not buy shares with public money and keep them in the name of the individual."
"The article published by Eleven Media caused disaffection to government by the public and distrust which leads to inducing people to commit offences against government. The government lodged a direct complaint at Tamwe Township court under section 505(b) of Penal Code (public mischief) against the journalists and they were arrested by court warrant," the statement added.
The Myanmar Press Council in a statement issued on Thursday strongly condemned the arrest of the journalists and demanded the case to be settled through arbitration.
The rights groups too criticised the detention of the three journalists from Eleven Media, which comes as the latest in a long series of cases brought against the media under vague and outdated laws.
Executive editors Kyaw Zaw Lin and Nayi Min and chief reporter Phyo Wai Win were hauled in before a Yangon court in handcuffs on Wednesday morning to hear the charges against them before being sent to Insein jail.
Yangon Region government Director Aung Kyaw Khaing prosecuted the journalists on behalf of the Region Government under section 505(b) of Penal Code after an article appeared in Weekly Eleven journal on October 8.
Eleven Media senior editor Wai Phyo wrote the article under the title: 'Close all ever losing gas stations, school buses bought with money from unknown lender, Public share in individual's name'. Advocate Kyee Myint who represents the journalists said his clients were prosecuted for facts contained in the article.
"Section 505 has exemption. This exemption says it will not be a crime if the writing of news is based on true facts. We will defend our clients on this ground," Advocate Kyee Myint said.
The Township court remanded the three journalists in judicial custody. The court fixed the next hearing for October 17. Section 505(b) of Penal Code carries a maximum punishment of three years imprisonment or fine or both if found guilty.
Their arrest is an "affront to press freedom" and a sign the government is "close to becoming an authoritarian regime," Ravi R. Prasad from the Vienna-based International Press Institute said.
"The whole media industry is under threat," said Hlaing Thit Zin Wai, founder of the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists. "I even have a bag packed at home as we cannot predict when it will be our turn," he added.
It is not the first time Eleven Media Group has been targeted by the authorities. In November 2016, the paper's then editors were jailed over a column that accused a government official of receiving a watch worth USD 100,000 from a businessman who later won plum contracts.
The arrests came just a few weeks after the sentencing of two Reuters journalists to seven years in jail at the end of what was widely seen as a sham trial, during which a police officer testified that they had been set up.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, had been investigating the extrajudicial killing of Rohingya men during a violent military crackdown last year against the stateless minority.
Civilian leader Suu Kyi has been facing criticism over the jailing, with the UN blasting Myanmar for waging "a political campaign against independent journalism".
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