By Phil Thornton
Two years into Myanmar’s first civilian led government and journalists are worried. Worried about their freedom to work, worried about what they write or broadcast and worried about the constant intimidation and physical harassment from the country’s security authorities.
The findings of a 2018 Myanmar country report by Freedom House is an indication the country’s journalist’s have a right to be concerned. The report found among other threats “surveillance of journalists by the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry remains a common practice.”
The Freedom House 2018 report warned that Myanmar journalists “covering sensitive topics risk harassment, physical violence, and imprisonment.”
Journalists who tried to report on the massive human rights abuses, killings and rapes of the country’s Rohingya people by the military in 2017, became targets. Two Reuters reporters were set up by police with a promise of ‘official leaked documents’. Both journalists were arrested on December 12, 2017 and held in jail for seven months before being charged. On July 9, a Yangon district judge charged the Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, with breaching the Official Secret Act - a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. Both journalists again pleaded ‘not guilty’. The International Federation of Journalists said at the time of the Yangon court hearing.
“Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are victims of an entrapment scam by police. The Myanmar government has not only failed to protect Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for investigating human rights abuses, but has politically and cynically used the country’s justice system to punish them and send a warning to other reporters that press freedom comes with restrictions and severe punishment.”
A senior Myanmar journalist union official told IFJ attacks on press freedom have created an atmosphere and environment not conducive to quality reporting. “All media outlets and all journalists are fearful of doing their jobs. We have to be extra careful now… we have to be careful how we use social media, who we use as sources and who we meet, as there are many laws we can be arrested under.”
The union official said he had hoped the election of the National league of Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016, would allow journalists to do their job by removing legislation designed to target and strangle journalists and gag free speech.
“We thought with the NLD in power it would be easier for journalists, but if anything it’s worse now. In the two years the NLD have been in power, 128 people have been charged under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunication Law.”
International human rights organizations claim laws used during colonial rule are still being used by the Myanmar government to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of association.
The New York based Human Rights Watch, in an on-line report said Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government, despite having the numbers to reform the draconian laws used to suppress and silence journalists has failed to act on its authority to do so.
Myanmar journalists and their union representatives are disappointed by Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD government’s failure to use its parliamentary power to commit to a free, investigative, independent and strong media.
With politicians prepared to label unfavorable coverage in the mainstream media as ‘fake news’ and the never-ending posting of internet opinion as fact, trust in genuine reporting of news events is being eroded in Myanmar. Journalists in Myanmar now say they have to battle an additional threat to their reputations – thousands of self-proclaimed ‘crime reporters’. The role of these self-anointed ‘crime reporters’ are of great concern to legitimate journalists. Win Naing has reported on ethnic issues for local and regional media for over a decade and told IFJ he is dismayed at how ‘crime reporters’ work.
“The line between being a crook and a ‘crime reporter’ is blurred. Someone who understands journalist ethics won’t do this work. They have no respect for people, they don’t interview, they interrogate.”
Win Naing recalled a press conference with villagers protesting a land dispute and said the attending ‘crime reporters’ failed to introduce themselves, heckled accredited journalists and threatened villagers for speaking out about their land claims.
A feature in Frontier Myanmar magazine cited a case involving four men, [who identified as journalists] arrested for stopping vehicles and demanding cash from drivers. Frontier pointed out that there are “there are hundreds of people in Myanmar who call themselves journalists and use the fear of publicity to practice extortion. Some of them describe themselves as crime journalists and as well as extortion, they have been accused of involvement in other criminal activities, including human trafficking.”
Journalists told IFJ the confusion of who ‘crime reporters’ are, is blurred further by the similarity of uniforms worn by both them and police. Crime reporters wear grey or beige photographer jackets and caps with insignia - a red and blue paneled shield with white script – similar to police.
Win Naing explained to IFJ that “people are confused, they don’t know who are real journalists and who are not. Villagers confuse ‘Htaung Lenyae’ that translates as spy with ‘Thadin Htaung’ or journalist. My parents are afraid of my job - they worry I’m working for the wrong one.”
The Myanmar Press Council was so concerned over the reports of ‘crime reporters’ that it wrote a ‘letter of complaint’ to U Thet Naing Oo, the chairperson of the Myanmar Crime Reporters Association. A copy of the letter, as seen by IFJ, summoned U Thet Naing Oo to a meeting to explain why his members “do not follow Myanmar’s media ethics and rules as stated in [Myanmar] Media Law 9 (i).”
Frontier reported that U Thet Naing Oo is also the chief executive of the Hmukin Shudaunt News Journal (Crime Perspective News Journal) and he claims to 380 offices with as many as 3,000 ‘crime reporters’.
As cited in Frontier magazine, Hmukin Shudaunt News Journal’s is not short of ‘influential support as it’s patron is “a former colonel who served as home affairs minister in the military government, and its staff, including legal advisers, include more than a dozen former government and police officials.”
Journalists told IFJ ‘crime reporters’ are usually given a free run to government sources and stories Win Naing agrees and said being a ‘crime reporter’ had its benefits, “they get full access, real journalists are given limited time by ministers or department heads and we are usually referred to a Facebook page - a better definition of a “crime reporter” would be ‘informer’.”