(Reuters) - Myanmar’s army said on Wednesday it had withdrawn a criminal complaint it filed against Reuters news agency after being requested to do so by the Myanmar Press Council and in the interest of good relations with the media.
Police said last week the military had filed a lawsuit against Reuters and a local lawmaker for criminal defamation weeks after objecting to a news story about two Rohingya Muslim women, who died as a result of shelling in Rakhine state.
“We have withdrawn the case because of the mediation and request of the Myanmar Press Council,” military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said by phone. “We acknowledge and value the role of the media in the multi-party democracy system.”
Police in Rakhine state, where the case was filed, were not available to confirm the case had been withdrawn.
The press council, which adjudicates disputes between authorities and news media, said the army had withdrawn the case against Reuters and a lawsuit filed last year against an editor for local news website The Irrawaddy.
“In the future, if there is something unsatisfactory... we request organisations to send a complaint to the press council first instead of opening a case or suing,” it said in a statement that welcomed the army’s decision.
A Reuters spokesman said: “We welcome the resolution of this matter via the Press Council. Reuters will continue to report on Myanmar in a fair, independent and responsible way, as we do all around the world.”
Both Reuters and The Irrawaddy had been facing lawsuits filed under section 66D of the Telecommunications Act, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison and has been used to jail government critics.
The case against Reuters followed an army complaint about a story published on Jan. 25 in which the lawmaker was quoted as saying that the military’s artillery fire had caused the deaths of the two Rohingya women.
After publication, the army said its artillery fire had not killed the women or caused other civilian injuries and blamed insurgents of the Arakan Army (AA), who are fighting for greater autonomy in Rakhine state. The AA blamed the army.
The army held a news conference on Feb. 4 to complain about the story, after which Reuters updated the story to reflect the army’s position.
The army subsequently filed a complaint to the press council objecting to the article. It later brought the criminal defamation case against Reuters and the lawmaker, Maung Kyaw Zan.
The army did not comment on whether the case against him had also been withdrawn. Maung Kyaw Zan told Reuters he had heard nothing about his case so far.
The army filed a complaint against Ye Ni, an editor for The Irrawaddy, in April 2019 also over coverage of conflict in Rakhine state. Ye Ni said he was “very pleased” with the withdrawal of the lawsuit and the reasons given by the military.
Rakhine is the western region from which more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims fled in 2017 following a military crackdown.
More recently, it has been engulfed by a new conflict between government troops and the insurgent Arakan Army, which recruits from the mostly Buddhist Rakhine majority population, and is fighting for greater autonomy.
Myanmar is facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over the crackdown against the Rohingya. The army denies genocide, saying it was fighting a legitimate battle against Rohingya militants who attacked first.
Two Reuters reporters were released from a Myanmar jail last May after spending more than 18 months behind bars, accused of breaking the official secrets act in a case that sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates.
Before their arrest in December 2017, they had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in Rakhine state.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Nick Tattersall