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Myanmar filmmaker in court amid freedom of expression clampdown

Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo gesture as they walk out of Insein prison gate after being freed in a presidential amnesty in Yangon on May 7, 2019
POOL/AFP/File
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Yangon (AFP)

A Myanmar filmmaker appeared in a Yangon court Thursday on charges of defaming the powerful military, one of a number of activists arrested in recent weeks as rights groups slam mounting assaults on free expression.

The release from jail of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo two weeks ago by presidential pardon was welcomed around the world, but fears over the backsliding of freedoms in the country have not abated, with several lower-profile cases continuing.

Filmmaker and activist Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, founder of several human rights film festivals, was detained in April for "insulting and defaming" the army after criticising the 2008 military-drafted constitution on Facebook.

The charges could each land him two years in jail under vaguely-worded laws that critics say are used to stifle dissent.

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi on Thursday attended a hearing at the crumbling Insein Court on the outskirts of Yangon, the same place where the Reuters were prosecuted.

"It is clear that the military is meddling in the legal matters of the country in an unlawful manner," said the activist, who was refused bail even though he recently underwent liver cancer treatment.

His nephew, Kyaw Satt Naing, told AFP that any lengthy time in jail would be "very worrying" for his uncle's health.

In a separate case, police charged pro-democracy activist Nilar Thein and four others this week after scuffles outside a court hearing for a troupe facing trial over traditional satirical performances poking fun at authorities.

The "Thangyat" troupe were arrested for lambasting the military during a street rap performance in Myanmar's April new year celebrations.

A police officer said he was injured outside the court by the protesters, a claim Nilar Thein called "phoney".

"We simply don't accept it," she told AFP.

Last week Channel Mandalay journalist Nanda Takotaw was also detained as police clashed with a crowd protesting against a Chinese-owned cement factory.

Police claim Nanda was involved in the protest, but the channel's editor-in-chief said he was just covering the event.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called for his immediate and unconditional release.

Myanmar is ranked 138 out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders.

There are currently almost 130 political prisoners in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Yangon.

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