Domestic and international rights groups have denounced the arrests of three journalists from Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group on Wednesday on charges of incitement for publishing an article critical of the Yangon regional government’s business ventures.
The arrests are the latest in a series of moves by the government to file lawsuits against the media for critical reports in what many see as backpedaling on freedom of expression and press freedom after decades of stifling military rule. In September, two Reuters reporters were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating a state secrets law while investigating a massacre of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine state, despite sworn testimony that they had been set up. The government has blocked independent media from accessing Rakhine state to report on the Rohingya crisis and its aftermath.
In an interview with reporter Kyaw Min Htun from RFA’s Myanmar Service, Aung Hla Tun, Myanmar’s deputy minister for information, says that recent actions taken against the media in Myanmar have tarnished the country’s image, and he calls for cases against journalists to be considered first under Myanmar’s Media Law.
RFA: What has the Ministry of Information done to support the survival of local private media? Do you have plans for changes to laws that suppress media freedom?
Aung Hla Tun: When you come across cases like these, some might say it damages the government’s image, but I say it damages the country’s image more. Look at the issue in northern Rakhine state. Some people call the [Muslim minority] “Rohingya,” but we call them “Bengalis.” It’s not a problem about the name. But since this problem became a major issue, our image has deteriorated along with that of our leadership and our people. I worked in the news industry, and I served in a senior position on the Myanmar Press Council. I think if action is needed to be taken against a journalist because of what he’s written, then it should first be taken in accordance with the Media Law [which carries fines for those found guilty of offenses related to their professional responsibilities and media ethics].
RFA: When security operations were launched in northern Rakhine state in 2016, Rohingya civilians started fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. They had the freedom to speak freely there, but the Myanmar media had to rely only on government statements and write stories based on those statements. Why couldn’t we have access to other sources?
Aung Hla Tun: I was still a journalist during that time. I agree with you. I’m not blaming anyone, but it was kind of one-sided. The Bengali side had very good media management. They had access to international organizations, NGOs, and sympathizers. Everything was so well orchestrated. Their statements were issued in various languages and were very timely — just look at the attacks [by a Muslim militant group on police outposts in Rakhine state] that came on the day that the Annan Commission issued its statement. At that time, we couldn’t see what was happening. For journalists, seeing is believing; we cannot rely on hearsay. And so we lost the trust of the people. We ourselves need to do research on those we can trust for certain assignments in times of an emergency. Anyway, we are now arranging guided media visits for local and foreign journalists.
RFA: There has been much criticism over the sentencing of the two Reuters reporters. You yourself had once been a Reuters correspondent. So what can the Ministry of information do for them?
Aung Hla Tun: As you said, I worked for Reuters for 20 years, and I have been a mentor to many young reporters. This is why I could not comment on the case. Of course, the government wants this case to be resolved peacefully, but we couldn’t interfere once they had been charged in court because it would have been considered contempt of court. But all is not yet lost, because they still have the appeal process. Right now there is a lot of pressure at home and from abroad, and I’m worried that there could be a backlash. No one should influence the judiciary.
An international group once wrote to me about three journalists arrested for using a drone. I asked them, “Can you fly a drone near the Pentagon or the White House?” Those three persons were arrested for flying a drone near our parliament building. They could have been detained and reprimanded instead of being taken to court. Holding them for some time and releasing them only after all the complaints had been filed was not the right way to go about it. The three did something that was wrong by flying a drone in a high-security area. But our media were not able to portray that point.
RFA: What are you doing to stop the mounting international pressure on Myanmar over the Rakhine issue?
Aung Hla Tun: One of my journalism mentors once told me, “Mishandling the media can be counterproductive.” It could backfire. We have nothing to hide, but the fact that nobody was allowed to go there led to suspicions. We could have done many things. Regarding the rape cases, we could have done DNA tests and interviewed victims. Those were some of our weak points. I want to tell our media people not to be discouraged. Right now there is so much pressure. I’ve met with U.N. officials such as [late former U.N. chief] Kofi Annan [who was head of Myanmar's Advisory Commission on Rakhine State]. They have heard stories from the other side, so they have one-sided views. We will try to have a good media management system.
Reported by Kyaw Min Htun for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.