Media under scrutiny in Myanmar’s shift to democracy

Recent arrests of reporters and editors here have raised concerns that Myanmar is taking a step backward in efforts to shift from a military dictatorship to a more democratic government.

October 02, 2014

By MAKOTO IGARASHI/ Correspondent

YANGON–Recent arrests of reporters and editors here have raised concerns that Myanmar is taking a step backward in efforts to shift from a military dictatorship to a more democratic government.

Authorities have denied they are trying to muzzle the media, saying journalists must be punished if they break the law. Others have cited the relative inexperience of journalists in the country.

But it cannot be denied that the government is taking a closer look at and tightening its grip on the many new media companies now operating in Myanmar.

On July 10, the Pakokku district court in central Myanmar sentenced the 52-year-old president of Unity Weekly News and four of its reporters to 10 years in prison.

The paper reported in January that a government-run plant in Pauk township in the Magway region was believed to be a covert chemical weapons factory. The coverage was based on statements from locals who were working at the plant.

The government denied such accusations and had the five arrested in February on charges of “espionage” for entering and photographing the facility without permission.

The arrests were based on the State Secrets Act established in 1923 during British colonial rule to protect Burmese military facilities from spies. The act carries a maximum 14-year prison term.

The defendants admitted to trespassing and taking photographs at the facility, but they argued that it was inappropriate to apply a law that was established to penalize spies.

Their attorneys argued that charging the defendants with breaking and entering should be sufficient, given the fact that the factory had no signs prohibiting entry and that proper security measures were not in place.

However, the court dismissed their claims, saying, “The defendants intended to put national security and interests at risk by writing of the facility in a publicized article.”

The defendants have appealed the ruling.

“It is obvious that the prosecutors applied the State Secrets Act to give harsher punishments to my clients,” defense attorney Than Zaw Aung, 34, said. “They intend to warn other media not to do anything similar.”

Two days before the court ruling, editors of the Bi Mon Te Nay Journal, another weekly publication, were arrested over the publishing of an unedited statement made by political activists.

The statement said, “The citizens have decided to have Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minority group leaders establish a provisional government.”

Authorities concluded that this was an act of public agitation.

They arrested five members of the weekly on suspicion of publishing materials intended to upset public tranquility. The editors are currently on trial.

“This is post-censorship,” said Toe Zaw Latt, the Myanmar bureau chief of the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Journalists and editors voiced their concerns in demonstrations held in Yangon after the court convicted the five Unity journalists.

However, in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Information Minister Ye Htut said: “The journalists were charged for using false identities to enter a military facility. The ruling has nothing to do with freedom of the press.”

Publications in what was then known as Burma came under extensive pre-publication censorship by the government after a military dictatorship was established in 1962. By the late 1960s, the only newspaper available was a state-owned publication.

But after democratic reforms were introduced to the nation in 2011, President Thein Sein began to gradually ease restrictions on the media.

The abolishment of censorship in August 2012 was followed by a rush of new private-sector publications. There are currently 12 daily and 218 weekly newspapers published in the country, according to the Information Ministry.

Some observers say the inexperience of the new media companies was evident in the case involving Unity Weekly News. And with numerous rival publications in existence, many editors are demanding more sensational news reports.

“The journalists should have realized the seriousness of reporting a suspected case of chemical weapon manufacturing,” said Thiha Saw, an experienced 64-year-old journalist. “They should have gathered sufficient data and consulted a lawyer before making the move.”

Authorities in Myanmar this year have become increasingly watchful over the media. Police are questioning editors, asking them such things as the financial conditions of their companies.

After visiting the nation in late July, Lee Yang-hee, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said, “There are worrying signs of possible backtracking, which, if unchecked, could undermine Myanmar’s efforts to become a responsible member of the international community that respects and protects human rights.”

She added, “In recent months, many of my interlocutors have seen the shrinking of (democratic) space for civil society and the media.”

By MAKOTO IGARASHI/ Corresponden