The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) unequivocally condemns the violent police dispersal of protestors and particularly the targeted attacks of journalists on duty in Letpadan and Rangoon, Burma, over the week.
Scores were injured and more than one hundred were arrested after police forces, including government plainclothes security agents, attacked protesting students at Letpadan, a town in Pegu division some 140 km from Rangoon on 10 March.
At least two journalists – Nyan Linn Htun from the Myanmar Post Journal and Phyoe Min Aung of the Reporter News Journal – were among some 130 persons reportedly detained by the police during the crackdown.
The attack was senseless and brutal, and we believe that there is simply no justification for the merciless move to inflict violence on the protesters, who were outnumbered by policemen and vigilantes that had the students surrounded. Authorities hit the protesters with batons, also attacking monks and other people who showed support, including those that tried to help protesters hurt from or fleeing the crackdown.
The entire incident demands an impartial investigation to determine the liability of the different officials involved in the incident, particularly those from the Home Ministry who issued orders to end the protest.
In Letpadan, police also intentionally targeted journalists reporting on the incident. Policemen hit several journalists with batons, as the latter tried to cover the incident. The main group of reporters, who banded together for protection, had to flee the scene for their own safety, after an announcement to ‘arrest the media too’ was heard from the police loudspeaker as the latter began charging the protesters and violence broke loose.
But more worryingly, the order to attack and arrest journalists in the 10 March Letpadan incident is not an isolated one.
A similar incident happened in the same town on 6 March, when police attempted to disperse the small off-shoot from the student protest. Authorities attempted to arrest The Irrawaddy journalist Sai Zaw along with five student protesters. The quick response of colleagues to pull him back from the arresting officers spared the reporter from detention. Sai Zaw and two other journalists were hit by policemen during this incident.
On 4 March in Rangoon, police also detained two photojournalists – Myo Zaw Lin of Democratic Voice of Burma, and Ko ‘Nickey’ of 7 Days – covering a protest of striking garment factory workers. Authorities reportedly refused to return confiscated equipment of the two journalists after their release, even issuing warnings against their publications in state-owned newspapers.
We wish to remind the Home Ministry that under the Media Law in Chapter 3.7 (a) and (b), journalists are entitled to protection by authorities when covering conflicts, riots and demonstrations. Such protection includes exemption from being detained and confiscation of journalistic equipment, and being entitled to ask for safety and protective measures from authorities.
Maybe authorities on the ground wished to prevent their institutions and personnel from negative coverage in the news media, but such a view is short-sighted especially considering their mandate to uphold the law, and the government’s duty to respect and protect human rights in the country.
Moreover, such attacks not only threaten journalist’s safety, it also seriously undermines their duty to more completely document such incidents in order to provide the public and officials a complete picture of the incident.
In the light of these incidents, the government must make a public guarantee to ensure media safety and freedom to report. It must order officials to refrain from harassing, attacking or arresting journalists in such situations.
The crackdown on journalists and protesters reveal a deeply ingrained culture of suppression among the former military officers now serving as civilian officials, and the ranks of security forces that continue to throw their weight around without accountability.
Since last year, SEAPA has observed a serious erosion of the media’s space to report freely and critically. And these latest series of direct attacks on journalists has clearly shown that media reform is short-lived and limited in Burma.