IFJ Blog: No Press Freedom in Myanmar

Press freedom is derived from the fundamental human right to freedom of expression and is the foundation of a free and democratic society. Writes Latt Latt Soe - Myanmar journalist and former executive member of the Myanmar Journalists Association

Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone escorted to court in Myanmar. Credit: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Press freedom is important for everyone. The media is the largest source of information needed for personal development, good governance, and the protection, promotion and exercise of all human rights. As such, an attack on press freedom is far more than an attack on a journalist. It is an attack on the journalist’s entire audience, and on everyone’s right to information.

All UN member states including Myanmar have committed to uphold the right to freedom of expression, and therefore press freedom. This commitment can be found in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

The freedom by which the media can investigate, access, and publish information, particularly that which is critical, is one of the best ways to measure the level of democracy in a country.

Journalists know best how much freedom the media has, and can compare their current experiences to the past to identify the direction that media freedom is heading.

According to the results of a nationwide survey, carried out nationwide by a coalition of organizations between December 2017 and April 2018, journalists concluded that media freedom is declining in Myanmar, and that the government, including the military, is the main cause of this.

The power of journalism lies in free, responsible and ethical media. Without these factors, the journalists would be powerless and the role of the fourth estate would decline.

Although the right to freedom of expression is protected in the Myanmar Constitution preamble, and under Articles 6, 354 and 364, at recent time, the media are threatened by unexpected rules from the penal code, so called hidden weapons. The NLD government (including military) uses these weapons more and more since 2015.

At the two-year anniversary of the National League for Democracy’s assumption of leadership, PEN Myanmar and its 18 expert partners found there had been either no change with regards to free expression or a worrying regression. They thus awarded a score of 2 out of a possible 60 points for the 2018 freedom of expression scorecard — a 6 point drop from 2017.  The 2018 score — 2 out of 60 — indicates a significant lack of progress in instituting key reforms to secure free expression in Myanmar, as well as significant backsliding.

In the third freedom of expression scorecard published by PEN Myanmar, one of Scorecard Discussion Participants remarked “The NLD government is closing the windows and doors to free expression. We are going backwards."

Based on the research and documentation by Athan, last updated on September 30th 2018, there are 43 journalists charged under 25 lawsuits. There were 15 lawsuits filed by government personnel, three lawsuits by the military, and seven cases by civilians. In 19 lawsuits the Telecommunications Law was used in the charges. Other legislations used were the Unlawful Association Act, Aviation Law, Export and Import law, Immigration law, Burma Official Secrets Act, Section 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code, News Media Law, and the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens.

At the other hand, Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made her first comment on the case of two Reuter journalists at the conference of the World Economic Forum in Hanoi that held on last September 2018. She said “the two journalists were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act’’. It showed that she has lack of knowledge on media freedom. International Freedom of Expression Organizations voiced disappointment on her unbelievable comment.

Although the new Myanmar Press Council was reformed in August 2018, the Press Council itself has no full-authority to defend media freedom and the safety of journalists. Highlighting this situation is the government’s use of the penal code to sue journalists rather than media law, without sending complaint letters to the complaint section of Press Council. The case was filed after Weekly Eleven published an article on October 8 by Phyo Wai Win on the funding behind Yangon's bus network and raised questions about public spending.

At October 9, 2018, the Yangon Regional Government accused Eleven Media's executive editors, Kyaw Zaw Lin and Nayi Min, and chief reporter Phyo Wai Win of causing "fear or alarm to the public" for a story that published "incorrect information," Under legal section 505(b), a colonial-era law, they would face up to two years in prison. Fortunately, two weeks after filing, the spoke person of Yangon Regional Government claimed that they would complain to media council for the case of Eleven Media Group. All media monitoring groups criticized the case, arguing that because of the pressure of President U Win Myint, of the Yangon Regional Government, the Penal Code was used as punishment.  

However all journalists and journalist organizations appreciated on the attitude of President. Myanmar journalists are looking forward to see the best result on that negotiating process. We also hope that ‘Media Law’ can be used to defend journalists in the future.

Recently, media workers have faced many challenges, including mental trauma. Journalists have no guarantee for their security. They are threatened by government all the time. Because of that, self-censorship is emerging among journalists. This is not a good sign for a democratic society, and is not to be a bright future for Myanmar’s media landscape.

However, Independent journalists, Myanmar media organizations, media-related organizations and CSOs are making movements for media freedom by publishing statements, holding media freedom forums, monitoring and evaluating Myanmar media landscape by the help of international media experts.

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References:

*Burmese penal code Article 505(b): “Intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity.”

Myanmar Newly Enacted Media Law : Chapter 3 Entitlements of Media Workers The News Media workers shall have the right –

(a) to freely criticize, point out or recommend operating procedures of the legislative, the executive and judiciary in conformity with the constitution

(b) to investigate, publish, broadcast information and related opinions to which every citizen is entitled in accordance with rules and regulations

(c) to reveal issues relating to rights and privileges lost by the citizen 

(d) to collect information, to be provided with accommodation and to enter into certain offices, departments and organizations in accordance with regulations of relevant departments or organizations.

The results of a nationwide survey of journalists’ opinions published by Free Expression Myanmar

Freedom of Expression Scorecard 1May2018

Mid-term report on Freedom of Expression published by Athan

 

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