Ahead of polls, Myanmar stifles media freedom


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As Myanmar heads for national elections in November, its government is intensifying attempts to stifle freedoms including that of the Asia-Pacific country’s newly vibrant media.

The country’s military blocked moves to rescind its veto power in Parliament, with a quarter of the seats reserved for unelected soldiers. Any major charter change needs a majority of more than 75 percent — giving the military the final say.

The military also prevented the amendment of a law that prohibited the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president or vice president by making ineligible any person whose spouse or children had “allegiance to a foreign power”. Suu Kyi’s children are British, as was her husband, who died in 1999.

Freedoms on decline

The government, under a former general Thein Sein has been credited with ending draconian media censorship, freeing political prisoners and launching economic reforms. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets had proliferated after August 2012 when the government abolished the system of censorship in place for the previous half century.

But now the government backslides on freedom of the press.

Over the past few months, things have gone awry the newly self-assertive media and rights campaigners have warned that reforms have stalled or even reversed in some areas, with dozens of student protesters behind bars and the tightening of media freedoms.

Climate of fear

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International describes in a report a “climate of fear” that is leading many members of the media to exercise “self-censorship” rather than face reprisals for reporting on sensitive topics.

Amnesty notes in its report, the authorities are “intensifying restrictions on media as the country approaches crucial national elections” by “using threats, harassment and imprisonment to stifle independent journalists and outlets.”

In 2014, at least 11 journalists were imprisoned for reporting news the government didn’t like. One journalist, Aung Kyaw Naing, was shot dead while in military custody after being arrested in October 2014, but an inquest into his death ended on June 23 with no one held accountable. His widow, Ma Thandar, told journalists she planned to appeal to have the inquiry reopened. She and her lawyer believe an autopsy revealed Naing’s body bore signs of torture, citing a crushed skull and broken jaw and teeth.

Naing had covered fighting between the Burmese army and a rebel group in Mon State, in the south of the country. “Even though the censorship board was abolished in September 2012, it would seem that reporting about the military is still a highly sensitive topic in Burma,” said Myint Kyaw.

On May 27 this year, apparently in retribution for unflattering reporting, the Burmese Parliament expelled journalists from the media room overlooking the chamber of the assembly and said they would only be permitted to follow parliamentary debates via a TV screen in the corridor outside of the chamber. The parliament also said it would no longer provide journalists with advance copies of the legislative schedule, leaving them in the dark.

Reporters had published video of members of parliament – several of those military officers — sleeping during official sessions. The journalists also caught representatives of the military leaning over to press voting buttons for their absent comrades — a clear violation of parliamentary protocol.

“It’s very obvious that military MPs cheated in parliamentary votes. Anyone who breaks the voting rules should be punished,” said Myint Kyaw, Secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network. “Our responsibility is to let people know what happens in the country, including the parliament. Our job is to provide for transparency and accountability.”

Laws as a tool against media

The government is also using laws limiting freedom of expression — like Section 500 of the Penal Code —to bring criminal charges against journalists.

On July 21, a court fined two journalists 1 million kyat ($800) each, after finding them guilty of defaming the president. Former chief editor Kyaw Swa Win and deputy chief editor Ant Khaung Min received the maximum fine for violating the newly enacted Media Law. Nine other staff from the Myanmar Herald were acquitted in the case, which was filed by the information ministry last November.

The newspaper had published an interview critical of President Thein Sein.

In a separate development, the Ministry of Information filed a contempt of court complaint against the publisher and 16 editorial employees of Eleven Daily in connection with a report on criminal defamation proceedings that the ministry brought against the paper. The complaint alleges that the report on his court testimony could prejudice the outcome of the case.

In a briefing to journalists and media advocates, the paper’s chief editor said the daily used the exact words from the official copy of the minister’s testimony and discussed how the judiciary had allegedly been “acting in a way that can be considered to be oppressive toward media.”

Journalists call the legal action as unprecedented in the country.

“This is the first time in newspaper history that such a large group of newspaper men were summoned to court,” Khin Maung Lay, a veteran journalist who was imprisoned several times by the military, told The Associated Press. “This is done with vengeance and it is a very bad precedent.”

Human rights watchdog, Freedom House condemned the contempt of court charges as an indication of the lack of press freedom in Myanmar.

Freedom House’s executive vice president, Daniel Calingaert said: The “Ministry of Information’s decision to file contempt of court charges against 17 journalists is extremely troubling and paints a worrying picture for press freedom in Myanmar as the country heads toward elections later this year.”

Eleven Media Group was charged with defamation for a “news article alleging that the Ministry of Information had misused public funds during the procurement of a printing press.”

The owner of the same media group, Than Htut Aung, was attacked last week by slingshot-wielding assailants, who the paper’s editor, Wai Phyo, said “suffer from our investigative reporting and those who do not want to relinquish power” at this November’s general election.

Aung was not injured in the attack, which reports said damaged the car’s passenger-side window where he was seated. The assailants escaped in a taxi. Police apprehended two suspects, who denied involvement in the attack. An account by Eleven Daily said there were five people involved in the attack.

Aung writes a regular op-ed column for the group’s Eleven Daily local-language newspaper, in which he often criticizes the military’s political role and official harassment of the press.

No sprint to democracy: Government

The Myanmar government, however, says the reality in the country is upbeat.

“Our government has released political prisoners, expanded media freedoms and achieved peace with armed ethnic groups. We are promoting democratic norms and values,” Kyaw Myo Htut, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States said in a rejoinder to the New York Times over an editorial criticising the country’s poor state of media freedom.

“Some laws need liberalizing, and we expect more reforms after a new parliament is elected this fall. This is not a sprint to democracy; it’s a steady march.”