Burmese journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were just doing their jobs, meeting sources and digging deeper into the story they were working on. That’s what they thought, anyway. But the Burmese government saw it differently. In December 2017, the two Reuters journalists were arrested and charged for breaching the Official Secrets Act.
For decades the press in Myanmar operated under the oppressive rule of the military junta. Publications faced heavy censorship and journalists who wished to write articles critical of the government were forced to do so in secret; the threat of either imprisonment or exile hung over their heads.
When former President Thein Sein’s government took power in 2011 in a high-profile transition towards a nominally civilian government, the situation began to improve. Private daily newspapers, for instance, were allowed to be published for the first time in decades. Although restrictions still remained in place, the victory of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 elections gave many hope that greater press freedom would soon follow.
Yet in the time since the NLD took power, it’s become chillingly clear that freedom of the press is far from a priority for those in power. There has instead been an uptick in the persecution of members of the press: colonial and junta-era laws have been deliberately kept intact by the government, and authorities stifle reporting on a growing range of topics.
The media under assault
“Myanmar’s media, both local and foreign, is under heavy assault as security measures used to suppress the press under military rule are reactivated under Suu Kyi’s quasi-democratic regime,” writes Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for Committee to Protect Journalists. “It marks a dramatic reversal in recent press freedom gains and augurs ill for the country’s delicate transition from military to elected rule.”
It didn’t always seem like this was going to be the case. Within the first year of the newly elected parliament, the government amended 19 and enacted 23 laws in total, including abolishing the notorious 1950 Emergency Provisions Act—a law used by the former military regime to target dissidents and journalists—which carried penalties as extreme as life imprisonment or even death.
But hopes of further progress towards press freedom quickly diminished after that promising start.
In June 2017, three journalists photographing a routine drug-burning ceremony by an armed ethnic group were arrested and charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, a provision used against journalists during military rule to discourage reporting on the Myanmar’s numerous armed ethnic conflicts. The journalists were held without bail for several months before being released after the charges were dropped.
A few months later, in October 2017, two journalists working for Turkish media TRT World were arrested and charged with the 1934 Burma Aircraft Act after flying a drone through the capital city of Naypyidaw. Their local driver and fixer were also arrested and held without bail, despite being found to have never operated the drone.
The case of the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, has attracted plenty of international attention. They had been working on an extensive investigation that proved the involvement of the Burmese military in the killing of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state. The story, later published by the wire agency as a special report, has triggered calls from the United States for an independent probe. The journalists are currently being held in prison pending trial; if found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de-facto leader, has voiced support for the reporters’ pre-trial detentions. Veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson claimed that she had been “furious” when he brought up the journalists’ case during a meeting of an international panel on the Rohingya crisis. He later quit the panel.
Since the NLD came to power in January 2016, there has also been an increase in the use of Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, a law which Human Rights Watch describes as having “opened the door to a wave of criminal prosecutions of individuals for peaceful communications on Facebook and has increasingly been used to stifle criticism of the authorities.”
Article 66(d) stipulates that people can be jailed for up to three years for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.” The language of the law is ambiguous—a deliberate feature of many junta-era laws—and thus allows police and officials to enforce it selectively.
“The law puts such control on the media that it leads to self-censorship”
According to Free Expression Myanmar’s analysis of the 106 criminal complaints made under the article between November 2015 and November 2017, 81 cases took place since January 2016. Between 2016-17, every person charged under the article was convicted and sentenced to prison.
In August 2017, following a three-day debate over proposed amendments to the 2013 Telecommunications Law, President U Htin Kyaw signed into law changes that restricted the lodging of cases under 66(d) to those directly impacted by the action in question. The amendment also enabled defendants to be granted bail and reduced the maximum penalty to two years.
These changes fell short of the expectations of activists and human rights organisations that called for a full repeal of the law. Critics of the amendment say that the legislation still contains broad and undefined language that enables the continued prosecution of the press.
“It is widely used against journalists and activists. Some media even refuse to publish articles which criticize the military or the government to avoid being sued and jailed,” Burma Campaign UK said in a statement. “The law puts such control on the media that it leads to self-censorship.”
Barriers to reporting
Arrests and legal action are just one aspect of the barriers to independent reporting in Myanmar today. Access to large parts of the country remain restricted; this includes the majority of Rakhine State, where over half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military. Journalists can only visit the region via state-run media trips curated by the government and military.
“The space in which journalists can operate in Myanmar has been getting smaller and smaller since the Rakhine conflict kicked off again in August 2017,” says Katie Arnold, a freelance journalist who worked in Myanmar for two-and-a-half years. “Places journalists can travel in-country are limited, and government officials who are willing to speak to you are [growing fewer in number]. There’s such a small space in which we can effectively work, which then limits the quality of the work we can produce.”
Freelance and staff journalists have been subjected to much longer wait times for visas to work in the country, as well as additional mandatory paperwork that requires applicants to sign documents promising not to travel to restricted areas. Other journalists who have routinely worked in the country have been denied visas entirely, including reporters who have worked with the BBC. Yet many are reluctant to go on record with their experience, for fear of being blacklisted and blocked completely from reporting within the country.
Self-censorship and repercussions
Like in many other authoritarian states, journalists often find themselves in positions where refusals to exercise self-censorship could lead to potentially severe consequences.
In late 2016, Fiona MacGregor, then the investigations editor at The Myanmar Times, was fired after writing an article about the Burmese military reportedly raping citizens during operations in the country’s western Rakhine State.
Her report led to presidential spokesperson Zaw Htay blasting her on social media for being “biased” against the government. MacGregor says she was fired by the newspaper for breaching company policy by “damaging national reconciliation and the paper’s reputation.”
Several staff members of the English edition quickly responded on social media to MacGregor’s termination. Others privately reached out to professional contacts to share their discontent with the paper’s actions. The English edition staff ran an ad apologising to readers for the lack of a clear editorial policy.
“I felt like I didn’t know what else to do,” says Robert Vogt, who had been a reporter at the paper when MacGregor was fired. “I didn’t feel courageous enough to quit my job but did feel courageous enough to let other people know what was going on—and I wasn’t the only person there who felt this way.”
Despite reporters’ efforts, things remain grim at The Myanmar Times and in Burmese media in general, says Vogt.
“I don’t think things got any better,” he says. “The owner runs the paper however he likes and it seems no one is stepping up for those writing about Rakhine State or other tough issues. It feels like journalists are powerless at the hands of this government, which has no respect for journalism.”
The recent appointment of former Reuters reporter Aung Hla Tun as the Deputy Minister for Information has not inspired much confidence. He has been critical of the international media’s coverage of the Rohingya crisis, stating in a press conference that “the greatest responsibility of media today in Myanmar is safeguarding our national image.” With such a clearly stated priority, there is little expectation of him facilitating a more open and transparent relationship with the press.
“It feels like journalists are powerless at the hands of this government, which has no respect for journalism”
On top of all this, threats to one’s physical safety remain. Journalists receive death threats on social media networks from irate trolls, threatening comments are regularly made against media workers by nationalist monks, and members of the press are often tailed by government and private officials while in the field. CPJ reported on February 12, 2018, that Associated Press journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Esther Htusan fled her home country in late 2017 in the face of increasing threats to her safety.
“The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech,” Aung San Suu Kyi once said in 2010, but it seems as if free speech has quickly fallen to the wayside for her administration.
“I think that she has proven herself less dedicated to free press being part of a democracy than many had hoped,” says one journalist who used to work in Myanmar, and wishes to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of criticising the government. “It may have been naive… the way a lot of journalists heralded her rise and sacrifice, expecting her to act as human rights advocate instead of a politician.”
But being the figurehead of a struggle for freedom is vastly different from playing politics, and many have been disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi’s performance thus far. If the National League for Democracy wishes to stand for democracy, institutional and cultural changes promoting free expression will be imperative, but don’t appear to be forthcoming so far.
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Victoria Milko is a multimedia journalist based in Myanmar. She is currently an editor at Frontier Myanmar, with her work also found in The Washington Post, NPR, and others.