Burma press freedom

People read weekly journals to buy at a roadside shop in Yangon, Burma. Pic: AP.

Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2014 press freedom index, released this week, saw Burma jump six places to 145th in the 180-country ranking. While the numbers look encouraging, they came with a firm caveat as RSF said that reform in Burma is in serious danger of “running out of steam”.

After what looked like genuine progress in recent years, the Burmese government’s actions so far this year point to a worrying u-turn on its commitment to media reform. Recent attacks on the press and the imprisonment of journalists have led to sharp criticism from RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

In January Ma Khine a reporter from the daily Eleven newspaper was the first journalist to be imprisoned during Thein Sein’s presidency.

(MORE: RSF index shows another dismal year for press freedom in Asia)

She was jailed for three months for defamation when a lawyer she was interviewing for a story about corruption objected to her questions and sued.

Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative said: “We call for the verdict against journalist Ma Khine to be scrapped on appeal.

“The jailing of a journalist on questionable charges shows just how far Burma still needs to go in reforming and scrapping laws that are often used to suppress the media.”

Over the weekend of February 1-2, four journalists from Unity Weekly newspaper and the paper’s CEO, Tint San, were imprisoned and charged with violating the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act after the paper published a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory in Pauk Township.

Lwin Lwin Myint the wife of one of the imprisoned journalists, Lu Maw Naing, was held for 24 hours and interrogated by the police after she went to visit her husband with their three-year-old daughter.

She was held because she accompanied her husband on the reporting trip. She said that the police seized her phone and laptop and that she had to to make herself available for trial in 14 days.

All five of the Unity employees are still in prison and face up to 14 years in jail.

According to Irrawaddy, The Ministry of Information (MOI) called the Unity report “baseless.” It said the Unity employees are accused of: “approaching, observing and checking, trespassing, entering, photographing and abetting in the factory’s restricted areas without permission.”

Myint Kyaw of the Myanmar Journalist Network said: “We haven’t found any damage to the government by revealing the story. There has been no big secret revealed.”

Shawn Crispin said: “The fact that journalists can be charged with revealing state secrets shows how desperately Burma needs meaningful legal reform.

Weapons proliferation issues are central to Burma’s political narrative and journalists should not be threatened or arrested for reporting on topics of national and international importance.”

Lucie Morillon, RSF’s head of research, said: “We firmly condemn the detention of these journalists and call on the authorities to release them without delay.”

Last mont the Associated Press angered the government with its report on a massacre of Rohingya villagers in Du Char Yar Tan (also spelt Duchira Dan) in Rakhine State on January 17.

The government claimed the reports were false.

Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations said: “I wish to clarify and underscore AP’s position with regard to our coverage of the recent violence in Northern Rakhine. We believe AP’s reporting on the situation has been careful and responsible. We stand by our coverage.”

The Ministry of Information (MOI) called in three AP reporters and told them that AP bureau staff would be held responsible for any unrest resulting from their reports on the events at Du Char Yar Tan.

(MORE: Burma: Govt moves to silence Rohingya MP after homes torched)

A New Light of Myanmar article also highlighted Irrawaddy’s reporting of the event, it said: “It is found that the reports of killings caused by racial and religious conflicts by AP and The Irrawaddy news agencies seemed to instigate unrests.”

Benjamin Ismail, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific Desk, told DVB that the foreign press are still heavily restricted on where they can go and what they can report on.

He said: “The problem remains for foreign press, not all conditions are there for foreign press to enter and operate.”

In March 2013 AP was the first international news agency to open a full news bureau in Burma.

Even the UN has not been exempt from government criticism.

When Navi Pillay UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an investigation into the alleged deaths at Du Char Yar Tan the government reacted angrily.

Ye Htut, spokesman for the office of President Thein Sein said to Irrawaddy: “It was sad to see a statement issued by the UN, not using information from their local office staff, but quoting unreliable information and issuing the statement. These accusations are unacceptable. By acting like this, it will mean the local people will have more concerns, doubts and less trust in the UN.”

He suggested the reports of killings were designed to damage the government’s reputation.