The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA) are deeply concerned about the announcement of new visa restrictions on foreign media working in Myanmar that means many correspondents and reporters previously granted three-month visas will now only be allowed to work in the country for a month. The IFJ has also warned that the withholding or control on the issuance of visas appeared to be another means of restricting and controlling the media in the fledgling democracy.
Under the visa changes, correspondents based in a foreign news bureau would be granted multiple six-month visas, while journalists seen as providing “occasional” news coverage would only be granted up to a one-month stay and journalists covering specific events would receive just two days’ grace to enter the country before the designated event.
Myanmar’s Deputy-Information Minister and government spokesperson, Ye Htut, said foreign journalists had previously been allowed longer stay visas because of events like the SEA Games and that the government saw the extended stay visas as no longer necessary. It also said journalists staying longer than advised was another reason behind the visa restrictions.
Last week it was reported in The Irrawaddy that the government had already started denying requests for three to six month journalist visas for foreign passport holders who work at formerly exiled media groups.
Several events slated for 2014 are expected to draw attention from international media, like nationwide ceasefire talks, constitutional reform and the lead-up to Burma’s 2015 elections.
“This move from the Burmese government makes it incredibly difficult for foreign media to be based in Myanmar to adequately report on the situation there, for example in the lead-up to elections, and more generally reporting on the government and its reforms,” the IFJ said.
“We can only assume this is a new tactic to try and control the foreign media while the recent arrests of local journalists is being used as a form of intimidation to the Burmese media to ensure they toe the line.”
Since the Burmese democratic reforms of 2011/12, Myanmar has gradually relaxed restrictions on the media. Exiled media groups such as the Irrawaddy, Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma have returned, international media websites have been unblocked and a number of new titles have also sprouted since the Information Ministry granted permission to privately-owned dailies.
The IFJ has previously commended the government for taking these important steps yet raises concerns over the actions of authorities in the past few months.
In early January, journalists rallied against the arrest and three-month jail sentence of Eleven Media Group reporter Khine Khine Aye Cho who was charged with defamation, trespass and use of abusive language – offenses usually punishable by a fine. It was reported to be the largest public gathering in Yangon since the Saffron Revolution of 2007.
Across January 31, February 1 and February 2 authorities arrested five Unity Weekly News journalists including the newspaper’s CEO, U Tin San. The arrests stem from a front page report alleging that chemical weapons were being manufactured at a facility in Pauk township, in Myanmar’s Magway region, under the orders of former military junta leader Than Shwe. The journalists were charged with violating the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act.
Authorities confiscated all copies of the Unity Weekly News edition in edition that carried the story and a government spokesperson has labelled the claims as “baseless”. The IFJ has published an English translation of the report here.
“It is disappointing to see Myanmar’s government beginning to wave in new restrictions on the media just as the door on freedom of expression in the country was just beginning to open. If the current leaders of Myanmar are serious in their intent to continue movements toward democracy the local and foreign media must be able to report freely on all events, not just events that the government invites coverage,” the IFJ said.
“We urge the government to retract these visa changes and respect media freedoms in Myanmar.”
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0950
The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries
Find the IFJ on Twitter: @ifjasiapacific
Find the IFJ on Facebook: www.facebook.com/IFJAsiaPacific