YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's Information Ministry has filed a contempt of court complaint against the publisher and 16 editorial employees of a newspaper it is already suing for defamation, an action critics charge is an attempt at intimidation ahead of elections set for later this year.
The editor-in-chief of the Daily Eleven newspaper, Wai Phyo, said Friday the ministry accused the newspaper of reporting unfairly on the defamation case.
He and three other executives of the newspaper are on trial for defamation after being sued by the ministry over a report alleging irregularities in its purchase of a printing press.
Earlier this week, the human rights group Amnesty International accused Myanmar's government of using threats and harassment to intimidate the media ahead of the polls. The London-based group said efforts to restrict freedom of expression have intensified over the past year, with at least 10 media workers now being held in prison, all of them jailed in the last 12 months.
The Daily Eleven, taking advantage of new press freedoms after a military regime was replaced by a civilian elected government in 2011, has published a series of stories on alleged corruption, abuse of power and inefficiency in the judicial system.
The new complaint by the Information Ministry's managing director says the newspaper's reporting on his testimony in March at the defamation trial could unfairly prejudice the judges in its favor. Disseminating information that could interfere or disturb a trial, or affect its fairness, is punishable by up to six months in jail. Defamation carries a penalty of up to two years in prison.
Aung Thein, a prominent lawyer who was charged with contempt of court under military rule, said he could not comprehend how such a large group of people could face contempt charges.
"This indicates that the government wants to pressure the media before elections," he said.
Amnesty International said authorities often drag the media through lengthy and costly legal processes, or seek collective punishment in response to one critical story by prosecuting several people from the same outlet to effectively shut it down.
The Information Ministry last year sued 11 staff members of the Myanmar Herald weekly journal for printing an article referring to President Thein Sein as a fool.
"This is the first time in newspaper history that such a large group of newspaper men were summoned to court," veteran journalist Khin Maung Lay, who was jailed several times by the military, said about the action against Daily Eleven. "This is done with vengeance and it is a very bad precedent."