Legal shackles on the media

By Chino Gaston

The NLD landslide in the Myanmar parliamentary election has pitched expectations high that a new NLD government to take office in March 2016 will finally start lifting restrictions that have crippled media freedom in the country for long.

Although journalists in the country operate in a much freer environment now than they did before the political transformation ushered in by the 2010 election that brought in a civilian government, ending decades of formal military rule, the change so far has only been cosmetic, media representatives in Myanmar say.

A sea of red. NLD supporters gather at the Myo-O Pagoda to hear Suu Kyi speak

A sea of red. NLD supporters gather at the Myo-O Pagoda to hear Suu Kyi speak

 

The days of state censorship of media and arrests without warrant are behind them, but several Myanmar journalists have been arrested, with at least 10 still in jail.

Human Rights lawyer Robert Sann Aung, who is defending five imprisoned journalists, says the media is vulnerable to legal intimidation. A series of restrictive laws continue being used to prevent the press from reporting corruption and wrong doing in government.

Four laws have been used primarily against activists and journalists, namely the Media Law, the Electronic Transactions Law, the Telecommunications Law and the State Secrets Act. The first two stand apart because of the frequency of their use.

Most provisions of the Media Law, enacted only last year, read like those in a standard journalist code of ethics. However, many stand out. For example, two clauses in Section 9 of Chapter 4 state:

“(g) Writing news which relate to the interest of the public, writing style which deliberately affects the reputation of a specific person or an organization or generates negative impact to the human right shall be avoided.”

(b) Receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to secrets of the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquillity or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.

The 2004 Electronic Transactions Law requires registration with and a clearance certificate from the government in order to publish online. A clause in the law bars the media from: “Receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to secrets of the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.”

The law carries a minimum prison sentence of five years. Its penal provisions are broad and subject to very liberal interpretation by the state.

Provisions in the 1923 State Secrets or Official Secrets Act make it possible for journalists to be charged with compromising national security if they simply report about the military.

To make matters worse, the law seems to circumvent the universally accepted principle of presumption of innocence with a clause stating: “On a prosecution…under this section with imprisonment for a term which may extend to fourteen years, it shall not be necessary to show that the accused person was guilty of any particular act tending to show a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State…”

Table: Journalists charged and arrested in Myanmar since 2010

Law Journalists charged/arrested In jail/state custody Fined or arrested but released
Electronics Transaction Law 5 3 2
Media Law/Defamation 3 1 2
Telecommunications Law 1 1
State Secrets Act 5 5
Sedition Act 5 5
Peaceful assembly and others 50* 50

*Journalists arrested as a group but later released and charges dropped in one incident July 12 2014

 

*) This article is produced for the 2015 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program. This year raising a theme “Covering the coverage of the 2015 elections in Myanmar.” Chino Gaston is a Filipino journalist working for the GMA News TV. In his spare time, he advocates media safety.