Photo: Foreign and local English-language newspapers (Alex Bookbinder)
Myanmar press freedoms under pressure ahead of 2015 elections
In August 2012, Myanmar’s censorship board – feared and mocked in equal measure – voluntarily consigned itself to the history books, marking the end of six decades of pre-publication censorship. For the country’s journalists and newspaper owners, it was a moment of elation, the first tentative step towards establishing a robust, free and independent media.
But that elation may have been premature.
That same month, Zaw Pe, a video journalist with the formerly exiled broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), visited a local education office in the regional capital of Magwe for an innocuous story about the disbursement of scholarships to study in Japan. He was detained and his camera equipment was confiscated. In early April of this year, he was sentenced to one year in prison on trespassing charges and a vague rule against “disturbing an on-duty civil servant.”
“He went to a government office during the day. How is that trespassing?” says Toe Zaw Latt, DVB’s bureau chief in Yangon. “It’s more about symbolic punishment, [telling] the media, ‘Don’t push too hard’.
Myanmar has made impressive strides in press freedom over the past two years. In 2010, Reporters Without Borders’ annual Index of Press Freedom ranked the country near the bottom of the list. By 2014, Myanmar had jumped nearly 30 places, putting it higher than Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.
With crucial nationwide elections scheduled for next year, political developments are likely to determine the future of the Myanmar’s military-dominated political system. Naypyidaw’s backsliding on press freedom at this critical juncture has raised fears that the relative autonomy enjoyed by journalists today will not last.
“Burma [Myanmar] is gradually yet unmistakably re-imposing many of the restrictions the previous ruling junta used to suppress media freedom,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Many officials, including in the military, have chafed under the more open reporting environment and are now fighting back through legal threats, visa restrictions and imprisonment. Earlier press freedom gains are being rapidly reversed.”
Five other journalists are currently incarcerated in Myanmar, four reporters and an editor, all of them from the Yangon-based Unity Journal. In February, the newspaper published an exposé on an alleged chemical weapons factory in Magwe Region, the same jurisdiction where Zaw Pe ran afoul of the law, and its staffers were charged with divulging “state secrets,” a crime that can carry a maximum sentence of 14 years. A conviction is expected to be announced this month.
The government has also taken steps to limit the time foreign journalists are allowed to stay in the country, and has reduced the maximum length of a journalist visa to around one month. In a few instances, applications have been rejected without justification. Earlier this month, an Australian DVB reporter, Angus Watson, was deported for reporting without a journalist visa, despite assurances early last year by Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut that journalists working on tourist visas would not face penalties.
The arbitrary way in which the government goes after journalists has left them on-edge. “When censorship was finally lifted, we were able to write about pretty much anything,” said Thaung Su Nyein, a member of Myanmar’s Interim Press Council and the CEO of 7 Day News Journal, one of the country’s most popular papers. “That form of direct censorship, the government has stopped. But in terms of controlling the media, there are still indirect controls… They don’t necessarily come to the journalists and tell them not to report on things, but they might go to the sources and say ‘don’t tell these stories… don’t say anything.’”
Fear of retribution has prompted many Myanmar journalists essentially to censor themselves, but Thaung Su Nyein claims the higher stakes have also forced them to be more meticulous about fact checking. “We want to be careful about making bold accusations at this moment. Maybe the Unity case kind of spooked us a little bit,” he admitted.
Two new pieces of legislation that govern print media – the Media Bill and the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill – were passed by parliament in March, replacing draconian, junta-era laws dating to the 1960s. A new Broadcasting Law, which will serve to regulate radio and television, is currently in the works.
The Media Bill was primarily drafted by the Interim Press Council, which is largely independent and made up of senior journalists. It provides broad guidelines on the obligations of the press, as well as the functions of the council itself, including its role as an arbiter in media-related disputes.
The Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill, however, was not formulated with the input of the media, and maintains a longstanding requirement that all publications be licenced by the Ministry of Information (MoI). “We feel that rather than empowering the MoI, it would be better to abolish the outdated agency,” Crispin said.
The barriers to getting a licence aren’t high, but if a publisher produces work that the government deems insulting to ethnic groups, religions, the rule of law or the constitution, among other things, it can force it to stop publishing. Many fear that as the 2015 elections approach, the government will begin to crack down on dissenting publications.