Propaganda and Repression: Myanmar junta poses as friend of regional free press

Myanmar Press Council Member Aye Chan’s presentation at the Dili Dialogue Forum was claimed to be a success in representing a ‘free’ press in Myanmar. A glance at the military junta’s crackdown on press freedom, journalists and media practitioners reveal this narrative to be baseless propaganda, writes Jim Nolan.

The Dili Dialogue Forum was held on August 25 and 26, attended by chairs of press councils from Timor-Leste, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar. Credit: Conselho de Imprensa de Timor-Leste

Attendees at the recent Dili Dialogue forum in Timor Leste were astounded by the presentation by Myanmar Press Council member Aye Chan (not to be confused with Aye Chan Naing the exiled chief editor of the highly respected media outlet Democratic Voice of Burma). 

Aye Chan presented a picture of press freedom that is conveniently opposed to the internationally recognised, widely reported reality of journalism in Myanmar. Reporters San Frontiers have recently stated that the world’s ten worst countries for press freedom include Myanmar (176th).

In a remarkable example of propaganda, Aye Chan claimed in his presentation that the Tatmadaw’s claims were proven by the 90% arrest rate for former National League of Democracy Members on corruption charges. The rest, it was claimed, were ‘on the run, forming part of the terrorist NUG government.’

Curiously, no concerns raised by international press freedom and human rights bodies were addressed by the junta’s Dili delegate. 

Chan failed to disclose that in early 2021, half of the Myanmar Press Council’s members resigned, stating that they were unable to perform their duties of protecting press freedom, upholding media ethics, or protecting the safety of fellow journalists. The 15 resignations on the press council were in response to censorship requirements issued by Myanmar’s military governance and concerns over the safety of journalists following legal and physical threats. 

Myint Kyaw, who was secretary of the Myanmar Press Council prior to his resignation, told VOA Burmese that the Ministry of Information sent directives to media outlets, ordering them to not use terms including “regime” or “coup”,

“I believe this is only the beginning,” Myint Kyaw said. “I bet the next target will be media. They can arrest and imprison journalists with any fabricated charges.” 

“[As] more and more such cases arise, and I realised [the press council] simply cannot promote media freedom and is unable to guarantee safety of the fellow journalists,” he continued. 

The Myanmar Press Council had also condemned a draft cyber bill that would give the military access to private user data and allow them to block websites and jail critics. In its statement, the press council called the law unconstitutional and said it would obstruct journalists’ ability to report.  Nothing was said about this in Dili.

On July 25, Myanmar’s military junta announced the execution of four pro-democracy activists. The first use of capital punishment since 1988, the executions indicate a concerning trend of indiscriminate and state-sanctioned violence towards critical voices. The four executed were veteran activist Kyaw Min Yu, AKA Ko Jimmy, National League for Democracy lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw, and activists Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw. According to the Irrawaddy, families of the executed activists were not told by law enforcement or allowed access to their bodies to hold funerals.

Since the military coup in February 2021, at least 117 people have been sentenced to death while thousands more have died in extrajudicial killings. According to the United Nations, 11,500 people are currently detained for opposing the military regime. 

Significant media rights violations have also occurred including, arbitrary arrests and detainments, censorship, and internet blackouts. Reporting ASEAN says that as of March 31 2022, 122 journalists and media staff have been arrested, 48 are currently detained, and 22 have been convicted.

In Myanmar in 2021, three journalists were killed and seven were tortured. According to reports, 115 journalists were arrested in Myanmar in 2021 and 14 were sentenced.

According to Detained Journalists Information Myanmar, 135 journalists were arrested in the year following the coup. Six of them were sentenced to prison in March 2022 alone. Myanmar was ranked 140 out of 180 countries in the 2021 Global Press Freedom Index. No reference was made to any of these events by Aye Chan. 

Chan returned to Myanmar claiming his ‘success’ in delivering the message of the junta to South East Asia. In a local junta-friendly publication he was quoted as saying:

“At the forum U Aye Chan of Myanmar caught the attention of all delegations with his presentation on the current events in Myanmar with the use of figures. The attendees expressed their astonishment over the presentation at the forum in comparison with the fake news of Myanmar mentioned in the international media.”

It is certainly true to say that delegates were astonished - they were astonished at the shameless lies spread by a person purporting to be an advocate of the free press. No mention was made in the article of the fact that he was roundly attacked for his presentation and made himself scarce for the balance of the sessions. 

This intervention underscores the importance that groups such as the Press Councils carefully scrutinise delegates sent to regional meetings whose only purpose is to function as a propaganda mouthpiece for authoritarian regimes and interests. 

Jim Nolan is the International Federation of Journalists’ pro-bono legal counsel for the Asia-Pacific and a regular legal observer on key cases in the region.