In an apparent reversal of a trend toward growing press freedoms, Myanmar authorities have established new restrictions on visas for foreign journalists working in the formerly military-ruled country.
Reporters previously granted three-month visas, with the option to renew inside the country, will now be allowed to work in Myanmar for only a month, deputy information minister and government spokesperson Ye Htut told RFA’s Myanmar Service this week.
“Journalists providing occasional news coverage will get up to a one-month stay,” Ye Htut said.
Foreign passport holders already assigned to news outlets in Myanmar are exempt from the new regulation, though, he said.
“Journalists working at foreign news bureaus that are allowed to open offices in Myanmar will be granted multiple six-month visas, and we will allow them to extend their visas in this country.”
Foreign reporters assigned to cover regional political gatherings or other “specific events” will also be allowed an additional stay of two days before and two days after the event, Ye Htut added.
Journalists who “qualify” for visas, “can cover news freely in the country,” he said.
Angered by report
In January, Myanmar authorities were angered by Associated Press reporting on the killing by Buddhist mobs of at least 48 Rohingya villagers in Rakhine state—an event the government denies occurred despite U.N. accounts confirming the deadly violence.
“This problem is just between AP news and the Myanmar government, though,” Ye Htut said.
The move to restrict access to visas comes amid signs of new press controls despite a six-point climb last year to 145th place in a 180-country ranking in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2014, released this week.
Reforms in the newly democratizing country may be “running out of steam,” though, the Paris-based media watchdog said in its report.
RSF noted that the government’s promise to draft media legislation that complies with international standards “has not been kept,” while “unacceptable restrictions on media freedom” have been proposed in draft media laws submitted to the country’s lower parliament.
On Dec. 17, a journalist with Myanmar’s award-winning press group Eleven Media was ordered jailed for three months after an argument with a lawyer from whom the reporter had sought comments on an alleged video piracy case.
Meanwhile, Myanmar authorities in early February arrested five journalists working for the Yangon-based Unity journal after they published a report alleging that the country’s military is operating a secret chemical weapons factory.
International rights groups and a local reporters’ council called for the reporters’ immediate release, but authorities rejected the journalists’ report as “baseless” and defended the arrests as a matter of national security.
“We journalists are still at risk in 2014,” Interim Myanmar Press Council member Zaw Htet Htway told RFA.
“Some reporters are hesitating to cover the news, because they have seen journalists who have been sued or charged, and they are worried for their safety,” he said.
“Journalists who are planning to cover the national election in 2015 could be in danger,” he added.
“2014 will be an important year to watch to see what happens to press freedoms in Myanmar.”
Reported by Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.