Days after Myanmar’s powerful military criticized domestic media for reporting only negative stories about the armed forces, some journalists fired back on Tuesday, saying they are not tools for disseminating army propaganda in the Southeast Asian nation.
At a news conference in Naypyidaw on June 22, Major General Tun Tun Nyi, vice-chairman of the military’s information team, accused some news agencies of exaggerating reports and omitting and twisting facts in their stories about the armed services, creating a negative image of them.
Tharlon Zaung Htet, deputy secretary of the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), said Tuesday that the independent media are not scribes of the state.
“We are not the place for the military to propagate,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “It is the duty of every military in the world to protect its country through a willingness to sacrifice soldiers’ lives. If the Myanmar military protects the country by sacrificing soldiers’ lives for it, then we will cover it as news.”
“The military has its own media to propagate, and propagating is what it wants,” he added.
MPC secretary Myint Kyaw noted that the military has invoked repressive laws to stifle journalists who write articles critical of it.
“Media people have been sued and charged,” he said. “They are oppressed by powerful authorities. The military should understand that these points are the reasons they write what they write.”
“Although there is a rule that the media must be balanced, there would be a shadow over their writing if they had negative feelings towards the military,” he said.
Myanmar journalist and political activist Thiha Thway, who works for a foreign media outlet, said that reporters and editors sometimes let political points of view, including negative opinions of the military, seep into their publications.
“Some journalists and editors write news based on their political points of view, so that sometimes their news can be thought of in terms of what the military said,” he told RFA.
“Some media have been operating since previous military governments, and their ways of thinking are revolutionary, such as [seeing] the military as always wrong and that it will do something wrong. There are some media that have yet to address this [shortcoming].”
When RFA contacted Tun Tun Nyi for comment on the journalists’ responses, he said that the military does not tread on press freedom in Myanmar.
“We don’t want to say anything about the criticism of us, and we don’t suppress press freedom,” he said. “But news has to be real news. I said what I said because I want journalists to not twist words in reporting stories and to write the truth.”
‘Lawsuits like these’
A report issued Sunday by Athan, a domestic organization that advocates freedom of expression in Myanmar, noted that 200 cases involving nearly 250 people had been filed under Myanmar’s controversial Telecommunications Law from late 2013 to June 20, mostly for online defamation.
Of those, 27 cases were filed by government officials against perceived critics, including journalists, activists, and human rights defenders, and 16 cases were filed by the military.
Nearly a dozen individuals have been sued for allegedly defaming the military commander-in-chief online over the past year and 10 months, Athan said on its Facebook page.
“So long as there are lawsuits like these, nobody would dare to frankly point out the weaknesses and failures of the government,” said Athan spokesman Maung Saungkha. “The authorities should fully guarantee the right to freedom of speech if they really want to build a democratic state, as it is a basic freedom of the people.”
But Myo Nyunt, spokesman of the ruling civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government, defended the charges by officials, saying they must have recourse to protect their reputations.
“Government officials also have the right to protect their personal integrity and their reputations and can file legal charges whenever they deem it [appropriate] to do so,” he told RFA. “The legal cases were opened by government officials based on their own individual decisions.”
Though Myanmar’s parliament amended the Telecommunications Law in August 2017 following an outcry over the growing number of defamation cases opened under the legislation, free-speech advocates have doubted the effectiveness of the reforms, mainly because controversial Section 66(d) has not been repealed, Athan said.
Section 66(d) prohibits use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a jail sentence of up to two years.
‘Nothing to do with that’
The Myanmar military has come under fire both domestically and internationally for its role in a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in 2017, during which soldiers killed, raped, and tortured members of the ethnic and religious minority and torched their communities. Thousands of Rohingya died, and about 740,000 fled to safety in Bangladesh.
Critics have also blasted Myanmar forces and the government for an escalation of armed conflict between soldiers and the Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine and neighboring Chin states, which has left dozens of civilians dead, injured, or detained by military authorities, and has driven about 35,000 from their homes.
Hostilities between the two sides intensified in late 2018 and in January, when the AA, an ethnic Rakhine army that seeks greater autonomy in the state, carried out deadly attacks on police outposts.
Because of the ongoing fighting, the Myanmar government on June 20 ordered four telecom operators to temporarily stop providing internet services to the eight Rakhine townships and one Chin township where battles have taken place.
Soe Thein, permanent secretary of Ministry of Transport and Communications, told RFA on June 22 that the reason for the shutdown is the lack of rule of law in the conflict zone.
In response to the move, Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said Monday that the cutoff of mobile data networks in the nine townships could affect monitoring of the conflict areas in Rakhine and Chin states.
Military spokesman Tun Tun Nyi said the armed forces did not play a part in the decision to suspend internet service.
“We have nothing to do with that,” he told RFA. “We are not committing any rights violations.”
On Tuesday, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) weighed in on the issue, saying it was appalled that government cut off internet service to about 1 million people in the townships, and calling for the immediate restoration of the “channel of news and information.”
“This internet disconnection is all the more unacceptable because journalists trying to cover the tension in the region are already systematically obstructed,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement.
“[Myanmar leader] Aung San Suu Kyi’s government needs to understand once and for all that prevention of conflicts and the search for a lasting peace require the free flow of reliable news and information that journalism enables,” he said. “This shocking violation of the freedom to inform is yet another sign of the impasse in Myanmar’s transition to democracy.”
A cover up?
The AA accused the government intentionally cutting off internet service to cover up the military’s operations and war crimes in an information blackout.
AA’s spokesman Khine Thukha pointed to what he said was the hypocrisy of the NLD administration in ordering the shutdown.
“This communications service shutdown occurred under the government that claims to be ‘a people’s party’ led by a Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw [honorific] Aung San Su Kyi,” he said.
“This [move] intends to limit freedom of expression and democratic values,” he said. “I think very horrible human rights violations are forthcoming, and the NLD government is contributing to these crimes.”
Myo Swe, the director general of the ministry’s Post and Telecommunication Department, declined to comment on the AA’s accusation.
But NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt defended the action, saying that rebel forces could be using the network to spy on the Myanmar Army.
“Both sides can make their own accusations” he said. “They might be arguing from the information freedom perspective, [but] northern Rakhine state is a region with ongoing military conflicts. There could be cases of using internet service to spy on military operations and transfer data involving military intelligence.”
“The Union government’s decision to shut down internet service might have been based on these concerns,” he said. “We’ll be able to justify whose claim is right only when we know the complete story of what has happened.”
Domestic civil society organizations focused on the free flow of digital information appealed on Monday for the resumption of regular internet services and for the amendment of sections of the Telecommunications Law that allows internet shutdowns.
“It is possible that they shut down the internet service to maintain stability in the country,” said Mya Aye, a student activist turned politician from the National Democratic Force. “But basically, the shutdown has stopped the flow of information.”
She added that she is concerned about the region’s residents who rely on social media to let others know what they are experiencing in the war zone.
“This is a very small right that they have,” she said. “When the government took away this right, they became voiceless.”
Reported by Wai Mar Tun and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.