“Burma’s media landscape has seen a radical change since the country embarked on a series of important political, economic and social reforms… The lifting of pre-publication censorship, the release of imprisoned journalists and greater space for freedom of expression have seen the development of an increasingly vibrant and diverse media,” writes Amnesty International, the human rights advocacy group.
That is one of the few bright paragraphs in a 26-page report titled ‘Caught between state censorship and self-censorship: Prosecution and intimidation of media workers in Burma’ published today.
According to Amnesty, rather than seeing an increase in press freedom as some had been expecting over the past few years, journalists in Burma (Myanmar) are facing threats to their careers, their ability to get stories published and even their physical well-being.
The paper highlights that reporters who cover “subjects which the government or army consider sensitive” can be confronted with “intimidation, harassment and at times arrest, detention, prosecution and even imprisonment.”
Imprisonment is precisely what Lu Maw Naing, Paing Thet Kyaw, Sithu Soe and Yarzar Oo, four journalists working for the Unity journal, are facing after a court in Yangon sentenced them to 10 years of prison and hard labor for publishing a story on alleged chemical weapons being produced in a factory in central Burma. The paper’s chief executive, Thin San, suffered the same fate.
Their story came out last year, and authorities later acknowledged that the company in question was indeed producing military hardware, but denied that chemical weapons were involved.
Freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing – also known as Par Gyi – was arrested on September 30 last year while returning from covering the conflict between the Burmese armed forces and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) in Mon State, near the border with Thailand.
On October 4 he lost his life in circumstances which are still unclear. The soldiers claim he was killed after he tried to grab a gun and escape, but his wife Than Dar and activists say this version of the story is not credible.
Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia’s representative for CPJ, called on authorities to “investigate the military’s accounting of his death, which has the initial hallmarks of a cover-up.” Lance Corporal Kyaw Kyaw Aung and Private Naing Lin Tun did indeed undergo trial, but the army court martial acquitted both.
These are two of the most widely known cases, but by no means the only ones: according to Amnesty International, as many as 11 media workers were detained in 2014.
In spite of significant improvements, when it comes to the media the country’s legal framework does remains weak. Two media laws approved in 2014 – the Media Law and the Printing and Publishing Law – were hailed as a steps forward from the previous piece of legislation dating back to 1962. Penalties were reduced and prior censorship of publications was scrapped, but the Printing and Publishing Law contains two provisions which left observers unconvinced.
One states that reporters cannot publish material which could imperil national security, but fails to clearly define what that entails, leaving a broad space for interpretation. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Printing and Publishing Law “fails through various provisions to free the press from decades of heavy-handed state oversight.”
Furthermore, the new legislation empowers the Ministry of Information to unilaterally revoke licenses to outlet, raising fears that this provision could be used to put pressure on publications.
On a final note, Amnesty’s research stresses that authorities are not alone in lacking an appreciation for journalistic work. Private entities – and, notably, nationalist groups such as Ma Ba Tha – are increasingly targeting media workers.
Amnesty reports the story of how a reporter and a photographer from the Irrawaddy Magazine were harassed by nationalist groups while covering ethnic clashes in Mandalay last summer. Both were threatened with beatings and even death for taking pictures of the protesters. Or some might say for doing their job.