Myanmar’s human rights situation is again under the spotlight with the arrival of Professor Yangkee Lee – the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar – last Sunday for a two-week visit. While Arakan and the plight of the Rohingyas there, will feature prominently on this visit, especially as the government recently refused to allow a special UN investigation team permission to visit the country, the growing repression of the media and the eroding of freedom of speech will also be a top priority.
After decades of ruthless control of the media and the brutal crackdown on any criticism under the military regimes of the past, the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein introduced a breath of fresh air, allowing the media far greater freedom than it had experienced since 1958. A vibrant local press emerged and to some extent encouraged, though strict limits remained in force.
When the National League for Democracy – led by the democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi – overwhelmingly won the elections in November 2015 – it raised expectations that press freedom would boom further.
But nothing could be further from the truth – in fact the intimidation and repression of the press has increased enormously since the NLD government assumed office eighteen months ago – amid a growing atmosphere of fear. The government has used every opportunity to crack down on criticism, especially in the media.
Since the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, came to power last year, the government has prosecuted scores of people, including journalists, activists and others who have criticized its authority in articles or social media posts. Myanmar journalists now live in a climate of fear more reminiscent of the days of military rule.
The government is using two laws to stifle dissent and harass and muzzle the press. These are section 66(D) of the Telecommunications Law and the use of the of the colonial-era Unlawful Association Act, section 17(1), which bans contact with armed groups, and carries a potential prison sentence of three to five years.
Recently three journalists — Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy magazine, along with Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) — were arrested after attending a drug-burning ceremony held by the rebel Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), who are still fighting against the Myanmar military in the mountains of Northern Shan State, along the Chinese border. They are currently in jail and are expected to appear in court in the next few days.
Human rights groups, journalist associations and civil society have all protested against their detention – to no avail as the government insists this is now a matter for the courts and they cannot intervene. The TNLA is one of several ethnic armed organizations, still on the Unlawful Associations list as they continue to fight the Myanmar army, and have not signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), a prerequisite to officially take part in the peace process. But the TNLA attended the government’s recent Panglong peace conference in Naypyidaw, after the Chinese intervention, so it would seem highly hypocritical for the government to continue to insist that contact with this group is illegal and tantamount to treason.
This law has been used in the past few months to detain other civilians. Human rights activists point out that there is an inconsistent use of the law: in conflict areas — especially Kachin State, Shan State and Rakhine — dozens of civilians have been arrested and charged under 17(1) to intimidate civilian support for the armed and political opposition in those areas.
But for the media, it is the indiscriminate use of section 66(D), which is most worrying.
Most of the recent prosecutions of journalists and critics have come under more recent legislation — a broad provision of the 2013 Telecommunications Law that criminalizes “defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person” online. Of the 72 cases that have been brought under this legislation, seven were brought under the previous military-backed government of Thein Sein and 65 under the democratically elected one, according to a group of local activists called the Research Team for Telecommunications Law in Myanmar.
Those cases include charges against 14 journalists, as well as activists and others — who posted online — and were critical of the government and the military. In one prominent case last year, the chief executive and the top editor of Eleven Media — one of country’s largest private media companies — were charged after publishing a report accusing a top official in Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and administration of corruption. They were held in prison without bail. The charges were later dropped after the company publicly apologized.
Earlier this year the military used the law to prosecute The Voice — a well-known local newspaper — for publishing a satirical article about the military. The author of the article was later released after his editor testified that he was solely responsible for it publication. But the editor, Kyaw Min Swe — who has since publicly apologized for the report — is still being held without bail.
At present a key issue is the question of bail. According to Janelle Saffin, an expert on Myanmar law and constitutional lawyer, it is a bailable offence. At present parliament considering amending the provisions of the law and even abolishing section 66 (D) altogether. But this will take time. In the meantime, what is needed is for the media law – passed under Thein Sein – to be strengthened. The 2014 Media Law says the Myanmar Press Council is the only organization to oversee that the media keep within the provisions of the law. But this has not been the case in practice since then.
There is still substantial work to be done in Myanmar to ensure a free press. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) latest World Press Freedom Index released this year, Myanmar is ranked 131, out of 180 countries – with North Korea being the lowest. While it may be a beacon in South-east Asia – with only Indonesia and the Philippines ranked higher – the role of an independent press is yet to be fully appreciated in the country, especially by the government.
The government’s approach was aptly summed by the NLD’s chief spokesman and senior official, Win Thein after the arrest of the three journalists: “For media personnel, press freedom is a key need,” he told the government’s national television channel, MNTV. “For us, peace, national development and economic development are the priority, and then democracy and human rights, including press freedom.”
Until there is the necessary sea change, and the government understands and accepts that a free press is not only a feature of a truly democratic society, but a necessary vehicle for democratization and national development, being a journalist in Myanmar is going to continue to be fraught.
[Larry Jagan is a journalist and Myanmar specialist, based in Yangon. He is also the author of several books and many academic articles on Myanmar. He has spent more than forty years covering the Asia region. He was Asia editor for the BBC World Service for more than a decade.]