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In the run-up to November’s crucial nationwide elections, Burma’s press freedom landscape leaves a lot to be desired, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
The report, entitled Caught between state censorship and self-censorship: Prosecution and intimidation of media workers in Myanmar, is based on interviews with media workers, both foreign and national, based inside Burma. Amnesty alleges that a particularly strong clampdown on journalists has occurred over the past year, following a period of relative freedom after the relaxation of media rules in 2012.
“[Burma’s] media landscape has seen a radical change since the country embarked on a series of important political, economic and social reforms,” the report claims. But despite these positive changes, “journalists and other media workers in Myanmar face ongoing restrictions in carrying out their work,” including defamation suits, harassment by the authorities, imprisonment, and – in one particularly egregious case – the extrajudicial killing of a freelance journalist in military custody last October.
Ye Htut, Burma’s information minister, was dismissive of Amnesty’s criticisms. “Normally, we don’t pay attention to these kinds of reports. Nearly two dozen organisations have issued reports on Myanmar’s media development. But the problem is they only approach Myanmar’s media development from the freedom of expression side,” he said, claiming that international critics fail to criticise a general lack of professionalism and standards in the Burmese media.
“When it comes to capacity and professionalism of journalists, I think he’s correct, to a certain extent,” said Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist and member of Burma’s Press Council, an independent body largely comprised of well-established media figures formed in 2012. “But this is not the only thing we are facing. We have lots of challenges, not just capacity.”
Thiha Saw is the first to admit that, despite continuing challenges, the operating environment for Burma’s journalists is markedly better than it was a few years ago. “If you take a look back three or four years ago, we [have seen] quite visible improvement, such as daily papers in the private sector. But we still have a long way to go,” he said.
In the latest World Press Freedom Index, published annually by press-freedom advocates Reporters Without Borders, Burma ranks 144th out of 180 states – below the Philippines, Cambodia Indonesia, and military-run Thailand, but above Singapore and Malaysia, as well as Laos and Vietnam. Despite improved rankings over the past few years, Amnesty says that at least 10 media workers are behind bars, and considers them to be ‘prisoners of conscience’.
“Within the ASEAN family, we are somewhere in the middle. A bit above average, but not at the top of the list,” Thiha Saw said.
The Amnesty report details a litany of abuses against journalists that have occurred over the past year, a pattern of behaviour that amounts to a government “relying on the same old tactics – arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time to muzzle those journalists who cover ‘inconvenient’ topics,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific research director, said in a statement.
In one high-profile case, four reporters and an editor from the Unity Journal were sentenced to seven years in prison for reporting on the alleged existence of a chemical weapons factory in Burma’s central Magwe Region. Although the government denied the veracity of the Unity report, they were charged under Article 3(1) A/9 of Burma’s Official Secrets Act, insinuating that they had, in fact, disclosed secrets detrimental to state security.
While the Unity case amounted to the most egregious example of undue judicial severity towards reporters over the past year, others have been arbitrarily detained and spuriously charged, including a DVB video journalist, Zaw Pe, who was sentenced to one year in jail for trespassing and “disturbing an on-duty civil servant” in April. After his sentence was reduced, he was freed in July.
“The government always says it takes action against journalists for security reasons,” Thiha Saw said. “But there are other ways and means of tackling those issues.”
And as far as he is concerned, this is where the press council is supposed to come in. But despite his best efforts and those of his colleagues, the government has not been responsive, and continues to employ Burma’s notoriously corrupt and partisan courts as a front-line weapon against journalists.
“For example, with the Unity case, the government didn’t come to the press council first [before charging the journalists]. And that’s what the press council is there for: to mediate any kind of issues.” Thiha Saw said. “But they don’t make use of that resource, and go straight to the court. This is not the way to handle it.”
One area in which cooperation between the government and press council has borne fruit is a new media law passed last March. But it, too, is a product of compromise: according to media freedom watchdog Article 19, the new law fails to “explicitly recognise media freedom or the right to freedom of expression,” and places undue emphasis on journalists’ ethical obligations, which Article 19 feels should not be the purview of the state.
And although the new media law has technically been in place for more than a year, a set of by-laws and regulations proposed by the press council are awaiting presidential approval, meaning statutes intended to increase the legal protections journalists enjoy and better access to information still need to be passed.
But according to Thiha Saw, these by-laws have already received approval from the presidential cabinet, and he expects the president to sign them into law within the next week.
Despite the modicum of protection they might provide, he is aware that Burma’s journalists are all but certain to face myriad challenges. The country’s weak justice system and the impunity enjoyed by powerful individuals and institutions – including the military – means that deepened legal grounding is unlikely to serve as a panacea.
Even if laws are strengthened in journalists’ favour, the violent death of Ko Par Gyi (aka Aung Kyaw Naing) in military custody last October has reinforced the need for journalists to be security-conscious, and to this end the press council has started to provide security training for journalists.
It has also launched an initiative to educate journalists on how to properly cover Burma’s upcoming elections, in a bid improve capacity and to stave off accusations of unprofessionalism. Despite these initiatives and an improved operating environment since 2012, Thiha Saw knows true press freedom in Burma is a long way off. “Sometimes we have to be patient,” he said.