Media access to officials and information in Myanmar has become more difficult under the year-old civilian government of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, despite indications the situation would get better, the chairman of a press organization said Tuesday.
“As everybody in the media world knows, media access has gotten harder under the new civilian government,” said Thiha Saw, chairman of the Myanmar Press Council, an independent media adjudication body that investigates and settles press disputes, promotes journalism ethics, and protects journalists.
He made the comments at a ceremony organized by UNESCO and Sweden in the commercial capital Yangon to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, held annually on May 3 to raise awareness about freedom of the press and to remind governments of their duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Despite the criticism, Information Minister Pe Myint said in his opening speech at the event that his ministry has held 16 press conferences within the last year under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and has been doing its best to ensure press freedom.
The Information Ministry is also providing media awareness training for spokespersons in all other ministries, he said.
“Reporters can run into difficulties depending on where they are covering news,” Pe Myint said. “They have to be careful about covering news in some sensitive locations. They can learn how to be careful when they receive media training.”
“Sometimes, particular organizations or individuals feel that they are being disturbed when they are interviewed or written about, [but] we can’t say we don’t have press freedom because of it,” he said.
But Zaw Thet Htwe, of the Myanmar Journalists Union, said the new government has failed to get rid of laws that restrict the freedom of the press, especially Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which prohibits use of the telecom network to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate” people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine for those who violate it.
“Press freedom has declined in the previous year because of Article 66(d),” he said. “It is a shame to see that the article is still active under the NLD government, which has always asked for media freedom.”
As the former editor of a popular sports magazine, Zaw Thet Htwe was sentenced to death in November 2003 for exposing irregularities by Myanmar sports officials, but his term was later reduced to three years’ imprisonment. A military junta, which ruled the country for five decades, had accused him of being involved in a conspiracy against the government and charged him with high treason.
The number of defamation suits filed under Article 66 (d), enacted in 2013 by the previous government, have soared under Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, with 56 people charged for social media posts deemed inappropriate—12 of whom were journalists.
During the previous military-backed government of former president Thein Sein, only seven people were charged under Article 66(d), five of whom received prison sentences.
Fears of ‘bad luck’
Kyaw Zwa Moe editor of the English edition of the online journal The Irrawaddy, wrote in an editorial for World Press Freedom Day that the country must be free from Article 66(d), state- and military-owned media, and joint-venture media concerns between the state and its businessmen cronies.
“The government is responsible for creating an atmosphere where independent media can thrive professionally, ethically, and commercially with laws guaranteeing the right to information,” he said, adding that these aspirations have yet to be realized.
“We journalists wake up every morning fearing that bad ‘luck’ will strike us—if influential players in the government or military or other powerful institutions have assumed that our stories published the day before ‘defamed’ them,” he wrote.
He went on to say that powerful people have misused Article 66(d) to attack the media, instead of making use of more standard defamation charges described in penal codes.
Last November, Than Htut Aung, chief executive officer of Eleven Media Group, and Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Daily Eleven newspaper, were jailed for violating Article 66(d) after publishing an editorial that accused Phyo Min Thein, Yangon’s chief minister, of being involved in bribery.
In April, a court in Yangon charged NLD researcher Myo Yan Naung Thein with defamation under Article 66(d) for defaming Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in a Facebook post. He was sentenced to six months in jail but was released a week later as part of a prisoner amnesty.
“We are likely to see more charges against individuals or journalists under Article 66(d) unless the NLD government or the NLD-dominated parliament repeals or amends this law for the sake of protecting freedom of expression,” Kyaw Zwa Moe wrote.
No place for media freedom
Myanmar ranks 131 out of 180 countries on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index issued by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), though it moved up 12 places from its 2016 ranking.
“After the National League for Democracy’s election victory, Burmese journalists hoped that they would never again have to fear arrest or imprisonment for criticizing the government or the military,” RSF said on its website about Myanmar’s latest ranking.
“However, media freedom unfortunately does not have a place among the new government’s priorities,” it said.
Thein Sein, who led the country for five years until the end of March 2015, lifted controls on the media early on in his administration and granted amnesty to journalists who were imprisoned.
But RSF charges that Myanmar’s media continues to engage in self-censorship because government officials and military officers continue to exert pressure on them and directly intervene in editorial policies.
Some rights groups believe that Aung San Suu Kyi, widely touted as a democracy icon in the West, has failed to live up to expectations for increased freedom of the press under the NLD administration.
In an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service in December 2015, a month after her party swept national elections by a landslide, she said that government-owned media were not good for democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
Myanmar has three state-owned newspapers whose objectives are to communicate the activities and policies of the government.
“We will not abolish them immediately, but yet don’t want to delay doing it as well,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at the time. “It would be better if we did everything according to democratic principles as soon as possible.”
“There are government supported media in the United States and United Kingdom, such as the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation, but they have their freedom,” she said. “They are working with their own channels. It is important to work freely even though we have government supported media.”
Reported by Thantsin Oo and Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.