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For Journalists in Myanmar, an Atmosphere of Fear and Repression

December 4, 2015

In 2012, when Myanmar, also known as Burma, abolished pre-publication censorship laws that had long forced journalists to essentially clear every article they wrote with the state, the Ministry of Information touted the move as a major step toward a free and fair democracy.

But years later, the law’s repeal has proved to barely ensure freedom of expression at all. 

According to a new report by the PEN American Center, a group that advocates for freedom of expression, journalists working in Myanmar are routinely threatened, arrested, sued, and fined by the Burmese government. The report was released Thursday evening but was obtained early by Foreign Policy.

The government’s crackdown on media has in turn created a climate of fear that has led many journalists to censor their own work, a reasonable option considering those who offend the government often pay a stiff price.

Last July, for example, five journalists and editors who reported on the alleged production of chemical weapons in a secret military facility were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in prison. In October, their sentence was reduced to seven years, but the charges have still not been dropped.

And in July of this year, two journalists from the Myanmar Herald were fined $800 each for quoting an opposition politician who called statements made by President Thein Sein “gibberish, irrational, cheap, and inconsistent … completely nonsensical, absurd, and insane.”

The judge’s rationale for the fines, which amount to roughly 65% of the average annual income in Myanmar, was that Thein Sein is “like our parent” and the interview “should not have been published,” according to the report. In some instances, journalists have been mysteriously killed, and according to PEN, the level of impunity for the perpetrators in these crimes signals an unwillingness on the government’s part to prioritize media freedom. One case highlighted in the report is the death of Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance journalist who was killed in detention in October 2014. The army claimed he was killed trying to escape, but evidence emerged that he had been tortured after his body was exhumed. Two soldiers were later acquitted of charges in his death.

The report also said Myanmar’s government even launched a so-called “Armed Forces Accurate Information Team” which routinely targets local media outlets, pressuring them to change their content and, in some cases, issue official apologies to the government.

PEN raised alarm over these cases in their report and said that in order for the country’s newly elected government to work as an effective democracy, “the boundaries of acceptable official involvement in the media sector must be clearly delineated and significantly narrowed.”

But addressing the media clampdown comes with some significant complications, namely that the suppression has not been limited to official media houses.

According to PEN, “more people [in Myanmar] now have mobile phones in their hands than electricity in their homes.” That has given them platforms for political conversations and debate, but it has also sparked fears over the level of government access to these conversations. In October, two activists were arrested for posting content the government alleged was critical of the military. One was 23-year-old Maung Saungkha, a poet and activist who on Oct. 8 posted the following verse on his Facebook page: “I have the president’s portrait tattooed on my penis/How disgusted my wife is.” By that night, police were already searching for him. He went into hiding and was arrested nearly a month later, shortly before the presidential election, and is now one in a large cohort of activists awaiting trial in Myanmar.

According to PEN’s interviews with local journalists and activists, there is a lengthy list of subjects that are best avoided. Those noted in the report include “peace talks and ceasefires; human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings; forced labor; land confiscation; border conflicts; refugees, returnees, and internally displaced peoples; child soldiers; human trafficking; environmental degradation or resource extraction; drugs; corruption; and development.”

That doesn’t leave much fodder for reporters or activists looking to tell stories and expose malfeasance in Myanmar, especially at a time when the country’s minority Rohingya population, which is considered stateless, is increasingly seeking refugee status abroad because of violence and discrimination at home.

Despite those challenges, there are still strands of hope in Myanmar. Last month, the country carried out its first national vote since its transition to a nominally civilian government in 2011. The opposition, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, took home a landslide victory and could be poised to effect real change.

But according to PEN, that change will require a commitment not only to freedom of expression, but to cracking down on extremist Buddhism, which has encouraged anti-Muslim rhetoric and further isolated Burmese Muslims from mainstream society. Despite the government’s willingness to aggressively pursue cases they perceive to threaten the state, officials have turned a blind eye to aggressive hate speech targeting religious and ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya.

Ashin Wirathu, a prominent anti-Muslim Buddhist, even went so far as to call U.N. Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee a “bitch” and a “whore” in January after she defended the Rohingya. And four race and religion laws that tighten restrictions on religious conversion and interfaith marriage have been passed, which critics fear will only further marginalize underrepresented minorities.

And although the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has spoken out against many other aspects of the military’s controversial policies in Myanmar, she has remained conspicuously silent on this front.

But PEN believes politicians like Aung San Suu Kyi need to speak up. In its lengthy list of recommendations for Myanmar’s new government, the report said newly elected lawmakers need to ensure that “senior officials proactively speak out to counter hateful speech and religious extremism.” Among a number of other recommendations, PEN also encouraged a massive overhaul of policies restricting freedom of speech and called for investigations into the harassment and killing of journalists.

Photo credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

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