Press freedom in Myanmar has sharply deteriorated over the past four years, disappointing high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government, which pledged greater liberty for journalists but performed worse than the previous military-led administration, media watchdogs and journalists in the country say.
During her four years at the helm of the democratizing former military dictatorship, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi broke a key 2015 general election promise to support freedom of expression, instead allowing journalists to be prosecuted under repressive and vaguely worded laws.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Myanmar 139 out of 180 countries this year, observing that “media freedom is clearly not one of the priorities of the government led by the ‘Lady of Yangon,’” a reference to Aung San Suu Kyi who took office for a five-year term in April 2016.
The country slid one spot from its raking by RSF in 2019, marking the latest in a series of successive drops since the state counselor came to power.
“We had already expected this [result] before this index was released,” Zayar Hlaing, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said about the latest RSF ranking.
“We know Myanmar’s press freedom condition is deteriorating,” he said. “We have seen several cases of the government filing charges against the journalists during these years. There were charges against journalists filed by the military. There were also cases where some journalists were arrested.”
The two biggest news stories from Myanmar in recent years — the scorched earth expulsion of 740,000 Rohingya Muslims to refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2017 and a 16-month-old war involving the Arakan Army (AA) — both have shown Myanmar’s military in an a harsh light, prompting United Nations war crimes investigations.
Currently there are as many as 62 journalists being prosecuted under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, according to Maung Saungkha, executive director of Athan, an activist organization he founded to promote the right to freedom of expression in Myanmar.
Thirty-four of the cases against the journalists were filed under Section 66(d) of Myanmar’s Telecommunication Law, he said. The statute prohibits the use of the telecom network to defame people and carries a maximum two-year prison sentence.
Eight cases were filed under Section 17 of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law, four other journalists were charged with defamation, and the remaining cases were filed under various other charges, Maung Saungkha said.
“In a time like this, it is undeniable that the condition of press freedom in Myanmar has been deteriorating annually,” he said as the world prepares to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
Thar Loon Zaung Htet of Khit Thit News and Khine Myat Kyaw of Narinjara News were charged in March for violating the Counter-Terrorism Law by interviewing members of the AA, the rebel ethic military that is fighting government forces in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Similarly, police arrested Voice of Myanmar (VOM) editor-in-chief Nay Myo Lin at his home in Mandalay on March 31 for the publication of an interview with the AA spokesman, but prosecutors later dropped the charges. Nay Myo Lin faced up to life in prison if he had he been found guilty of charges filed under two sections of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law.
“The sections of the law they charged me under includes the phrase ‘anyone who violates the terms,’ meaning that journalists are no exception,” he said. “It severely limits press freedom and the rights of journalists. The police said my news organization’s work violated the sections of the law regardless of how we did our reporting.”
Nay Myin Lin said that police told him if his news organization conducted any additional interviews with the AA, he could be charged again for conspiring with an illegal organization under the Unlawful Associations Act.
“It is very terrifying because it is the military that doesn’t like journalists broadcasting the voices of members of insurgent groups,” he said. “They don’t like any kind of coverage of armed conflicts either.”
Numerous other examples of journalists arrested under the current government abound.
Aung Kyi Myint, who uses the name Nanda while reporting for privately owned broadcast outlet Channel Mandalay TV, received a two-year prison sentence for using social media networks to provide live coverage of a demonstration against a cement production factory in central Myanmar’s Mandalay region in May 2019 when police beat protesters.
He was accused of using violence against police and soldiers, though there was no evidence to support that, according to a statement issued by RSF in August 2019.
In a case that made international news headlines, two Reuters news agency journalists in Myanmar spent more than 16 months in jail on charges of obtaining state secrets while reporting on the killing of a group of Rohingya by government soldiers in volatile Rakhine state.
They were released in a presidential amnesty on May 6, 2019, shortly after winning a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the murders.
Conditions in Myanmar, which endured five decades until 2011 of rule by a brutal military regime that had jailed even Aung San Suu Kyi, mark a sharp reversal from previous statements made by the country’s leaders in recent years.
During World Press Freedom Day in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi appealed to the media “to contribute to ongoing democratic transitions” in the country and pledged to enact a News Media Law.
“We all have to work to create laws related to the media and give protection to journalists,” she said at a ceremony marking the occasion. “It is the ruling government administration’s responsibility to make these laws effective.”
In 2019, President Win Myint said in a statement during a World Press Freedom Day ceremony in Yangon that “media freedom is essential for Myanmar to become a robust democracy.”
News Media Law
Press freedom advocates say given the current situation, the News Media Law drafted in 2014 may never be approved during the final year of the NLD government’s five-year term.
The draft law introduces some guarantees for media freedom, such as the prohibition of censorship and the recognition of specific rights of media workers, though critics note that its safeguards are heavily qualified and insufficient to meet international standards.
“We don’t have any laws protecting the press freedom and freedom of expression,” said PEN Myanmar secretary Han Zaw. “The existing laws do not give any protection, and we are not in the position to amend them.”
“As long as we cannot create a legal environment that offers protection for press freedom, there will be challenges and prosecutions of journalists,” he added.
Amid the crackdowns on press freedom, journalists are under further pressure in doing their jobs amid the coronavirus crisis.
“In the meantime, the COVID-19 crisis early this year has hit the already struggling print media pretty hard,” said Ah Mann, editor-in-chief of 7 Days News journal. “There are more and more added pressures on the media industry. We are barely surviving now.”
“The worst part is we are witnessing one bad news story after another with some newspapers laying off many of their staffers,” he said. “Some newspapers are planning to suspend their circulations.”
The Myanmar Times, a major privately run newspaper, recently suspended more than 70 employees, including 30 journalists to reduce operational cost and lack of steady income amid the COVID-19 crisis.
A much-criticized internet service blackout in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin states, ordered by the government for security purposes amid armed conflict in the region, is also preventing journalists from reporting news about the fighting.
Reported by Nandar Chann, Thant Zin Oo, and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.