After decades of intimidation, draconian prison sentences, persecution and being driven into exile by the country’s former military regime, Myanmar’s journalists are again being targeted by the government and its security forces for their reporting.
The country’s journalists feel that any optimism for a free press generated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s and her party, the National League for Democracy, massive election victory in November, 2015 has all but evaporated.
Journalists are struggling to come to terms with the Telecommunications Act, also known as Article 66(d). Under the Act journalists are being sued for criminal defamation - local media have estimated and reported that as many as 60 cases have been filed since Suu Kyi’s NLD took office.
The International Federation of Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists have all denounced Article 66(d), as a crude strategy by the government and the military to suppress reporting and criticism of its respective parliamentary performance and security operations.
In a statement released in June 2017 the IFJ and its affiliate, the Myanmar Journalists Association called on the government to get rid of Article 66 (d).
“The growing and continued use of Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act against journalists is an attempt to silence critical voices and intimidate the media. We join MJA in calling on the government to abolish the law and ensure press freedom in Myanmar.”
Journalists spoken to by IFJ have said that despite the election victory of the NLD, they still face harassment, threats, intimidation and constraints on their ability to report events such as the mass displacement of the Rohingya in Western Myanmar, the armed conflict in Kachin and Shan States and land confiscation cases were the military is involved.
A senior Yangon based journalist, who has covered many contentious issues, including the displacement of more than 500,000 Rohingya people in Rakhine State, said that since the arrests of journalists under 66(d) they have become more cautious in their reporting.
“Journalists know that we have been warned… the arrests of Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung and Lawi Weng prove that we can be arrested anytime at any place. I have stopped writing about [military and security forces] them. Journalists are afraid to do their job. I was warned by a senior official to be ‘careful’.”
The three journalists were arrested in late June by soldiers and charged under the Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for attending a drug burning publicity event held by an ethnic armed organization, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
It took until September 1 for the Myanmar Army to announce it would drop charges against the three reporters and on September 15 the court formally endorsed the Army’s request. A public statement attributed to the Myanmar Army stated that “in order to keep on working together for the national interest of the country and the people, the Tatmadaw [military] decided to forgive and drop charges against the personnel and media.”
Journalists in Yangon explained to the IFJ that it is getting difficult to report on the government, its ministries and military.
“They tell us that if we want information, go to their Facebook page or twitter, but they won’t give us direct quotes.”
Journalists pointed out that the “government was not willing to be scrutinized and citizens now go to Facebook for their information on government services; they no longer rely on newspapers or journalists.”
The senior journalist stressed that it was a concern that most of the “material on social media, especially regarding the situation in Rakhine State was ‘hate speech’. They [government ministers] say they are trying to take down ‘fake news’, but the reality is that they are leading the ‘fake news’. If we report on it or what they say we risk being sued for defamation under 66 9d).”
In July the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a media alert pointing out that proposed amendments to the telecommunications law and submitted by the Ministry of Transport and Communications to Parliament did not go far enough.
The CPJ said that the “amendments would not ease penalties for convictions under the criminal provision, which includes three-year jail terms and fines.”
The CPJ’s Senior Southeast Asia Representative, Shawn Crispin explained that "while we recognize certain improvements in the ministerial proposal to amend Myanmar's Telecommunications Law, they don't go far enough to ensure that the law is no longer used to threaten and imprison journalists. For the sake of press freedom, the law should be fully decriminalized and all pending cases against journalists immediately and unconditionally dropped.”
A veteran ethnic journalist told the IFJ, that despite being able to travel freely between border areas and the major cities since a ceasefire was signed in 2015 between eight ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar Army, reporting in remote areas is dangerous.
“Even though we are regarded as the fourth pillar in democracy we have no protection, the rule of law is weak, especially in remote areas. If we report on drugs, land issues or corruption – that are often linked to the Myanmar Army or the armed groups – we have to be careful not to reveal our sources. We will not be sued or go to court, it will be finished quickly.”
Myanmar Human Rights Specialist, David Baulk working for Fortify Rights, told the IFJ that “…vaguely worded laws are being used by authorities to strangle the voices they don't want to hear. Journalists, human rights defenders, and activists have borne the brunt of this. The irony is that under an NLD-led government, staffed by many former activists and political prisoners, cases of criminal defamation have sky-rocketed. The NLD-led government should amend or repeal laws that target people speaking the truth to power, and start upholding some of the democratic ideals they claim to represent.”
Mr Baulk said that the NLD government is denying citizens their right to be informed about critical issues affecting the country, including allowing access to Rakhine State, where security forces have been accused of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.
“The public have the right to know the truth about state security forces' abuses, and what this Government is doing about them. But instead of creating an environment where journalists can investigate these issues safely, the government has shut down any debate and threatened legal action against them. The government should be protecting people's fundamental rights to freedom of opinion and expression, not giving them a choice between silence and a sentence.”
Mr Baulk acknowledged that “journalists might be being a little more careful about how they get their stories right now,” but asserted, “they're not going to be silenced.”
By Phil Thornton