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UNESCO has proclaimed 3 May as World Press Freedom Day as a “reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom”. Yet the Burmese media landscape is blighted by the existence of six imprisoned media workers while the Ministry of Information (MoI) appears driven by an agenda seemingly at odds with a revitalised Burmese media community.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been any progress since the Thein Sein administration took office in March 2011.
US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel last week visited Naypyidaw where, according to a US Embassy statement, he affirmed that “the [Burmese] political space has opened significantly in the last three years, and the government has taken important steps to cultivate an environment conducive to free, fair and independent media, a critical element of a vibrant democracy.”
Such steps have resulted in the eradication of prepublication censorship laws and a new willingness on the part of the Burmese government to work with independent media associations. Dialogue with the Myanmar Journalist’s Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalist Network and Myanmar Journalists Union, through the 2012- established Interim Press Council (IPC), has contributed to Burma’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index jumping seven places in the last year alone. Burma now sits at 145th overall, ahead of five of its ASEAN counterparts, including Malaysia (147th) The Philippines (149th) and Singapore (150th). Under military rule, Burma had consistently been ranked the third most difficult country in the world to be a journalist.
Yet “while press freedom conditions in Burma have generally improved, there are elements in government, including the Ministry of Information, that are uncomfortable with the more open reporting environment and are trying to reassert control over the press,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Yae Khe, a reporter recently arrested in Prome, central Burma, has experienced this first hand.
“The government is still trying to block information to the public,” said the journalist from Mizzima, one of a number of “exile media” organisations that have recently opened offices in Burma. That return was made possible by 2011 presidential edicts that relaxed prepublication censorship rules and lead to the establishment of the IPC.
“But it goes further than blocking information,” Yae Khe said. “Media suppression is one element of a broader inability for the public to express themselves. The government is not only uninterested in the public will, but they are still going to great lengths to silence people.”
Yae Khe was arrested on 26 April as the organiser of an unauthorised rally in Prome, officially known as Pyay. He now faces the prospect of three months in prison or a 30,000 kyat (US$30) fine, or both. On that occasion, over 100 demonstrators gathered to protest the jailing of DVB video journalist Zaw Pe, who last month was sentenced to serve one year in Thayet Prison, Magwe, for the crimes of “trespassing” and “disturbing a civil servant on duty” as he attempted to interview an education department official on the subject of a Japanese-funded scholarship program.
On top of this, five staffers from the local media journal Unity Weekly are currently imprisoned and face the charge of “exposing state secrets”. The five could be sentenced to 14 years in prison after the cover story of the 24 January edition of Unity Weekly alleged the existence of a “secret chemical weapons facility” in central Burma.
“The authorities in Myanmar [Burma] must respect and protect the right to freedom of expression,” Amnesty International said in a press release ahead of World Press Freedom Day, which highlighted the cases of Zaw Pe, Yae Khe and the Unity journalists. That right “is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This includes the right to ‘receive and impart information and ideas through any media’ – journalists and other media workers must be able to carry out legitimate journalistic activities including sensitive investigations without fear of reprisal or arrest,” Amnesty International insisted.“Media suppression is one element of a broader inability for the public to express themselves. The government is not only uninterested in the public will, but they are still going to great lengths to silence people.”
The IPC was instrumental in the drafting of a new media law, initially intended to remove impediments to reporting such as that encountered by Zaw Pe. The Media Law, passed in March, outlines journalistic codes of conduct and importantly guarantees press access to government information. The passing of the law also rescinded the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, which carried heavy prison sentences for vague crimes such as “disrespecting the state.”
However Thiha Saw, the MJA’s representative to the IPC, believes that laws otherwise unrelated to the press are now being used to silence journalists.
“The authorities are trying to use other existing laws, for example civil laws and criminal codes – additional to the established media and publishing laws – to punish or deter journalists from doing their work.
“The [law] they use most often is defamation, against a person, or perhaps an office. We’re also seeing authorities increasingly using the charge of trespassing for this same purpose.”
Speaking to DVB shortly after Zaw Pe’s sentencing, David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s senior Burma researcher, suggested that the incident is an example of the Burmese government “pulling out military-era provisions to intimidate the media”.
He added: “The national-level parliament is failing to repeal these petty provisions utilized by capricious local officials and is instead drafting laws that will intimidate the press and curtail their ability to investigate corruption and malfeasance.”
Those intimidatory clauses are housed in the Printers and Publishers Registration Law, passed by parliament alongside the Media Law in March. The law was drafted in secret by the MoI and contains, what HRW’s Mathieson calls, “vaguely worded and generalised provisions that give substantial leeway for authorities to intimidate editors and owners of newspapers through the threat of legal action.”
The Printers and Publishers Registration Law enables the MoI to declare publications illegal should they broadly “incite unrest”, “insult religion” or “violate the Constitution”. What the secretive drafting of the law by the MoI has also seen is the further tarnishing of the relationship between the government and the IPC.
“We totally object to the Ministry’s law,” Thiha Saw told DVB on Friday. “We know the trick, it is about the centralised control of licensing and registration, the same way the 1962 act was. The MoI are still able to revoke licenses at any moment. We’re worried that they’ll come up with some sort of licensing restrictions.”
Despite the restrictive environment, the streets of Rangoon are now dotted with newspaper stands selling a range of daily and weekly journals, including conspicuous publications such as the Irrawaddy, which is often critical of the government, as well as magazines with titles such as Democracy Journal. Yet financial pressure is already forcing some papers off the stands. Last month, well-respected English-language journal Myanma Freedom Daily was forced to go on a temporary hiatus, due to a financial shortfall.
Zaw Thet Htwe is a member of the IPC and a former political prisoner. In 2004, a military court sentenced him to death after he filed reports critical of the military. He was released in a presidential amnesty in 2012. According to the respected media advocate, diversity in the media landscape is crucial ahead of the 2015 elections.
“We may face further oppression in the lead-up to 2015, as a multiplicity of media laws, some yet to be passed, make it a more rigid and difficult place for journalists to operate,” Zaw Thet Htwe said shortly after appearing as a panelist on Friday’s DVB Debate on press freedom.
“We at the Press Council want to focus on ethnic media in particular,” he said, adding that a diverse media community will make Burmese press freedom stronger.