As the election looms for later this year, incidents in 2014 and in early 2015 involving the press raises serious questions on the genuineness of media freedom in Burma. The situation is alarming as the state seems to have heaped all the faults and fines on the media in the past year, which has seen a media worker being killed in October on the pretext of national security. International assistance has poured into the country to develop the media aimed at lifting and sustaining the state of media freedom. However, a viable press freedom environment seems unlikely to materialise in Burma before the end of this administration.
The media in Burma has been targeted for reporting on issues that have become irritants for the government. Departing from an earlier commitment to free the press, it appears lately that authorities are getting nervous about news reporting that may derail the outcome of their road map to democracy.
Harsh measures taken by the authorities on journalists has surprised those who have been convinced of the reforms since 2011 to ease state media controls. Nonetheless, speaking at the March 2014 International Press Institute congress in Yangon, Information Minister Ye Htut assured his international audience of editors, media executives and journalists of government’s unconditional commitment of press freedom in Myanmar. He said, “We have the reform strategy and we have the political will to implement it. We recognise our problems but we are working every day, doing our best to overcome these challenges. I would like to assure you today that the Myanmar reform process is irreversible.”1
Despite his reassurances, images of journalists being manhandled by law enforcement agents at various protest sites, as well as long prison sentences handed down to editors for alleged espionage contradict any claim of progress on press freedom.
Old laws for media offences
The most palpable indication of reversals on media freedom in the country is the use of criminal laws to prosecute journalists doing their work. Legal threats against the media have spiraled upwards, and are being used by state authorities to put down growing criticism among the media.
Zaw Pe, a video journalist with the Democratic Voices of Burma (DVB) was sentenced in April 2014 to a one-year prison term for for the ludicrous charge of ‘trespassing and disturbing a civil servant on duty’. This verdict was handed down to the Magwe-based journalist, a small town in central Burma, after a two-year long trial for inquiring about a Japanese-funded scholarship programme.
David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, said, “Zaw Pe’s sentencing is another reprehensible example of the government’s recidivism on press freedoms, pulling out military era provisions to intimidate the media.”
Mathieson pointed out that “the national level parliament is failing to repeal these petty provisions utilised by capricious local officials and is instead drafting laws that will intimidate the press and curtail their ability to investigate corruption and malfeasance.”2
A few months later, in October 2014, five journalists from the local paper, Bi Mon Te Nay (in English, “Midday Sun”) were sentenced to five-year jail terms on sedition charges under the emergency provisions of Section 505(b) of the Penal Code. The group of journalists and publisher were arrested on July 8, after publishing the story of a false announcement of activist group Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF) about Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders having formed an interim government. Subsequently, the paper was forced to shut down having been accused of trying to stir public chaos through their journalistic work.3
Earlier, President Thein Sein, warned the press that his administration will take action if the media is not helping the country:
“We have attained one of the highest levels of press freedom in Southeast Asia, with the right to speak and write freely, because of political reform which is crucial in the transition process. However, if media freedom threatens national security instead of helping the nation, we warn that we will take action under existing laws.”4
President Thei Sein’s 7 July warning foreshadowed what turned out to be the harshest sentencing of media workers on 10 July. The chief executive and four journalists were punished with 10 years of hard labour in prison for publishing a story about the alleged chemical weapon facility in central Burma in January2014. The verdict eventually forced the closure of Unity Journal.
The Unity and Bi Mon Te Nay verdicts completely ignored the new News Media Law passed in April. The Myanmar Journalist Journalist Association’s Pho Thaut Kyar pointed out that such such journalism-related disputes be mediated by the Press Council before any court action.
To show solidarity with the jailed Unity journalists, about 150 journalists held a silent demonstration in July 2014 in front of Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon, as President Thein Sein held a press conference inside the building. Later, police threatened to charge about 50 journalists for violating the Peaceful Assembly Act for staging a protest without permission. A guilty verdict could land offenders with a maximum penalty of 6 months imprisonment.
In November, the Yangon police threatened to charge more than 20 journalists for holding an unauthorised prayer service to mark ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’.
Police claimed that journalists held the activity outside of the areas approved in the protest permit. “They went to Sule Pagoda and to [Maha] Bandoola Park, which we did not permit them to do. We are going to charge them under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law,” said Police Col. Win Tin from the Kyauktada Township police office.5
In September 2014, the Ministry of Information (MOI) announce it was filing defamation charges against the Myanmar Herald and Eleven Media Group, publisher the Daily Eleven newspaper, for separate content both publications carried. Daily Eleven published articles about the ministry’s overpriced payment of about 400,000 USD for a printing press machine.
The publisher stood firm for the story. “We have strong evidence and facts and we will take full responsibility for what we have published, even if this ends up in court,” Daily Eleven editor-in-chief U Wai Phyo said.
MOI charged The Myanmar Herald for carrying interviews which contained ‘extreme criticism’ of President Thein Sein.
“We are not wrong,” said U Aung Kyaw Min, the deputy editor at the Myanmar Herald. “We just published comments of a political scientist and an NLD leader on the flaws and inefficiencies of the government led by the current president.”
“In September, we offered the ministry an apology to the extent possible but they were not satisfied and rejected it. They denied the offer.”
The interim press council tried to mediate for acceptable settlements for both cases as per the new media law. However, but the body failed to yield an out-of-the court solution, leading a way for the MOI to file charges.6
Further reform under review
On 14 October, the upper house of Burma’sParliament approved the draft Television and Broadcasting Bill, which contains more than 100 clauses. The bill is intended to give full potential for editorial freedom for the broadcast media.
At present, licenses to set up broadcast media enterprises are tightly controlled. The existing six FM radios and two television broadcasters are owned by a handful of businessmen who were hand-picked by previous military regime. No additional broadcast license has been granted in Burma since 2010, as the existing operators are about to renegotiate the terms of agreement after the new law is approved.
To ensure independence and diverse programming in the broadcast spectrum is a complicated task. Also, it is vital to safeguard media freedom and to allocate broadcast frequencies fairly to help a fledgling democracy like the one Burma to flourish and move forward. Accordingly, the state is required to set up an independent and transparent regulatory body that will promote the public interest at the core of media’s role, and consistent with international standards on freedom of expression.
Given that ownership of broadcast media is monopolised by handful of cronies , content aired aired by the industry is decidedly pro-government.
“How can we practice media freedom when there is no ownership independence? We just do as much as we can,” said a senior editor from Myanmar National TV (MNTV). MNTV, the only English language free-to-air TV channel, is operated by Shan Than Lwin Media, the media enterprise outlet of a local conglomerate that has benefited from its close association with key members of former and present government.7
With a revenue of more than US$3.86 million for the 2014-2015 fiscal year by state-run daily newspapers alone, government-owned media organisations are doing well whilst privately-run papers are dropping out from newsstands one by one.
A Public Service Media bill has been introduced in parliament in March 2014 to transform these lucrative state enterprises into non-profit enterprises serving public interest content. One year later, theMinistry of Information requested to withdraw the bill from the Union Parliament, stating the need to amend it in accordance with the changing situation of the country, as well as to take suggestions from media organisations and public into account.
Likewise, according to the MOI, the broadcast media bill will also be reviewed along with the public service media bill before having it enacted.
Licensing marginalised voices
Due to its geographical remoteness, Chin State has always been lagged behind in terms of overall development, including the media and potentially democracy. A region with diverse dialects, the populations in Chin State have to rely on more than 20 local papers. These locally published- community papers aserve as a lifeline to preserve ethnic languages, cultures and traditions, in addition to filling the information gap as the mainstream newspapers cannot reach the mountainous hinterland on time.
In early October 2014, the regional government forced the Hakha Post to shut down on the ground of being unregistered. “We will try to register. During this [process], we have to suspend production. We will wait and see whether the registration will be approved or not”, responded Lalawmpui, the paper’s editor-in-chief.
He suspects that the real motive behind the forced closure is his paper’s regular news stories criticising the lack of transparency in the State government administration.
Published in the local Lai language with a circulation of 2,500, the Hakha Post has been distributed in the state capital Hakha and surrounding areas since 2012.
“Since the Union government said it would promote literature and media of the ethnic people, the order to shut down the Hakha Post shows there is no transparency yet in Chin State. If the chief minister wants to take action on the newspapers that do not have registration, they should take equal action against all of them (the papers running without licenses in Chin State), not only us,” Lalawmpui added.8
Within a month, newly founded The Falam Post, also a local dialect paper with a 1,000-copy circulation, was similarly shut down by district authorities in Chin State. An official at the Falam District Information and Public Department confirms the action as coming from a direct order from state-level administrators.
“The notice letter we received said that the order is in accordance with a decision by the Chin State government, and the newspaper can only proceed after obtaining permission to publish under the new media law,” said Bam Lian Hmung, an editor of the Falam Post who felt that the growing readership of The Falam Post was the reason for enforcing a bolt on his paper. 9
Subsequently, two more papers from Tedim Township were shuttered in the same month. The editors of the Tedim Post and Zo Lengthe newspapers confirmed the closure for being unregistered news outlets, and again under the instruction of the Chin State government.10
Clearly, nipping away the ethnic language newspapers goes against government intentions to protect ethnic identities after decades of imposing a national identity based on the majority Burman ethnicity.
A grave warning
There are also indications that the authorities and the media are at loggerheads over the press reporting about the flagging democratisation process particularly in the ethnic frontier areas while the central government is trying to harvest the international applause for its reform strategy.
Aung Kyaw Naing, aka Par Gyi, was shot dead on 4 October after a month in the custody of the Army’s Light Infantry Battalion 208 in Kyaikmayaw town in Mon State. The 49-year-old freelance journalist has been reporting on ethnic issues along Thai-Burma boarder for different Rangoon-based newspapers. He had been in Mon State to report on full-scale fighting between the state Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and other as well with small units of ethnic Karen rebels in southern Burma.
Initially, the army accused the reporter of being ‘communication liaison’ for DKBA, which denied the claim.
“He is just a journalist and we helped him when he came to gather news, that’s all,” Saw Lont Lon, the secretary of Klohtoobaw Karen Organisation said.
The Burmese army was first to inform the Interim Press Council about the death of the journalist. They claimed that the reporter had tried to seize the gun from his guard and tried to run away so he was shot dead.
“Whether he was a journalist or an officer from an armed group, this is a human rights violation,” said Zaw Thet Htway, journalist and free speech advocate. 11
As indications of a cover-up by the army mounted, calls for Burmese authorities to account for journalist killing like wise rose but has fallen on deaf ears. The Par Gyi incident has become the most blatant transgression of press freedom since official censorship ended in 2012. It has sent a clear warning to the media against crossing certain lines for reporting.
As a whole, Burma is seeing its press freedom slipping away despite tremendous efforts by local and international support groups to maintain the momentum that began in 2012. While considerable progress has been made, as evidenced by still free reporting environment, the biggest threat is coming from the disuse of the media law that despite limitations should provide the backbone for press freedom.
Time is ticking for the much anticipated general election in November 2015. The political exercise provides the most critical test for media freedom, as it would indicate whether larger economic and political reforms would be sustained.
In addition, social media is widely expected to impact on the coming polls. The country’s low internet penetration rate is projected to grow as new companies lay out the infrastructure for mobile internet access. But already, social media is highly active, and played a key role in recent ethnic and interreligious violence as a channel for hate speech. The new channel has the potential both to stir turmoil or to be used for transparency in campaigning and polling.
This election is therefore a good opportunity to revitalize press freedom, as well as tap public’s potential through mobile communications to ensure that the political exercise is honest and the playing field fair. Further reform to completely dismantle the draconian and outdated security laws that stifle freedom of expression is an agenda for the incoming government. Freedom of expression deserves its rightful place in any party’s conduct during elections, its campaign manifestoes, as well as its post-election programme of work during its tenure.