Reporter’s sacking followed MoI phone call, sparking press freedom fears
By Sean Gleeson
November 4, 2016
A foreign journalist at the Myanmar Times was dismissed after the Ministry of Information complained about her coverage of alleged human rights abuses in Rakhine State.
* Sacking followed public condemnation from President’s Office
* Staff ordered to withhold reporting on military, Rakhine State
* Information Ministry set to publish guidelines on Rakhine reporting
YANGON — The newsroom of the Myanmar Times is in uproar over the summary dismissal of a foreign journalist, which followed a public condemnation of her reporting by the President’s Office and a complaint from the Ministry of Information.
Ms Fiona MacGregor, until Monday the English daily’s special investigations editor and a member of the paper’s staff since 2013, was sacked after an October 27 article reporting on the alleged rape of dozens of women by security forces in Shey Kya, a village in Rakhine State's Maungdaw Township.
MacGregor’s article was denounced in a Facebook post by President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay, who complained that the journalist had sourced official quotes on the Rakhine security crackdown from another publication instead of contacting his office.
MacGregor told Frontier she had attempted to contact Zaw Htay for comment prior to publication, but could not reach him.
Frontier has learned that the Ministry of Information contacted management of the Myanmar Times on October 28 to voice their displeasure with MacGregor’s coverage. Three days later, MacGregor was dismissed.
Since Monday, numerous staff members at the English daily said they have been told by management not to report on Rakhine State, military actions in the state or the state’s Rohingya community until the establishment of new reporting guidelines on these subjects.
The restrictions remained in effect as of Friday, and sources at the Myanmar Times have told Frontier that the paper withheld coverage of this week’s government-supervised diplomatic delegation to Maungdaw.
With the ministry set to publish guidelines on reporting events in strife-hit Rakhine State, media advocates and members of Yangon’s tight-knit journalist community have expressed fears that MacGregor’s sacking would foreshadow a renewed attack on press freedoms.
‘Their ability to do their jobs has been curtailed’
As of Friday, staff at the Myanmar Times had still not received official confirmation of MacGregor’s dismissal from management.
Numerous employees of the Myanmar Times spoke of their dismay at the decision when contacted by Frontier. One editor resigned without notice on Tuesday, while other staff members were considering their responses. An editorial staff member of the paper’s English edition, who asked not to be identified, told Frontier that expatriate staff were “very angry” at management’s actions.
“Meanwhile, in the absence of clear ‘guidelines’ about what can be published, many of our local reporters are nervous that they might be unfairly and unceremoniously terminated like Fiona was,” the staff member said. “Their ability to do their jobs has been curtailed as a result.”
“Our newspaper outlasted Than Shwe’s regime. It’s frustrating that it’s now being dragged down by internal censorship,” they added.
According to an account of Monday’s meeting, attended by editor-in-chief Mr Bill Tegjeu and chief operating officer U Aung Saw Min, MacGregor was terminated under clauses of the Myanmar Times Employee Handbook relating to compliance with editorial instructions and upholding the paper’s reputation.
Asked how she had violated these clauses, MacGregor was told: “We don’t have to explain that. We have more important things to do.”
(Disclosure: Several staff members of Frontier were previously employees of the Myanmar Times. None had a role in the commissioning or production of this article.)
Neither Tegjeu nor Aung Saw Min responded to requests for comment on Monday’s meeting, the imposition of reporting restrictions on Rakhine State or discussions with the government about the paper’s reporting.
According to the account given to Frontier, Tegjeu said at the meeting he was “not at liberty to discuss the matter” when asked by MacGregor if officials had complained directly to Myanmar Times management.
Speaking to Frontier on Thursday, Zaw Htay of the President’s Office said he had not directly contacted the Myanmar Times in regard to the paper’s Rakhine coverage.
He said he had instead directed the Ministry of Information to address the issue with the Media Council, the independent body established by the 2014 Media Law to adjudicate press complaints.
U Thiha Saw, the president of the MPC, said he was contacted by an officer of the Information Ministry to discuss “controversial” coverage of events in Rakhine State, but added the council had not received a complaint and the phone call did not specifically discuss the Myanmar Times.
“It was not an official complaint to the MPC — we have an official complaint centre,” he told Frontier on Thursday. “If they contacted the centre, we would check if it was within our mandate under the law, but we have not received an official complaint letter yet.”
However, Frontier has learned that the Information Ministry also made a direct call to Myanmar Times management on October 28 to discuss the paper’s Rakhine coverage.
“The Myanmar Times wrote fake information about Rakhine State, it is not true information,” U Myint Kyaw, a senior ministry spokesman, told Frontier on Thursday. “So MoI called Myanmar Times about that news.”
Frontier was unable to confirm the exact nature of the conversation between the ministry and Myanmar Times management.
Myint Kyaw added that the ministry was planning to release a press release clarifying its policies on the coverage of events in Rakhine in the near future.
Press freedom concerns
MacGregor, an experienced reporter who has written extensively on conflict and its effects on women in Shan State, Rakhine State and elsewhere in the country, said she was concerned that the public attack on her October 27 column would portend a clampdown on reporting.
“It is extremely important that a precedent is not set that allows the presidential spokesperson to use social media or any other means to personally attack journalists for reporting on these matters, or for the government to be allowed to consider this an effective way to silence the media,” she wrote in a widely circulated email on Thursday evening.
“It is difficult enough for local journalists in this country to report on Rakhine without the threat of this kind of intimidation coming from the President's Office.”
Foreign reporters and observers have been barred from Maungdaw District in the aftermath of the October 9 attacks on Border Guard Police stations, which claimed the lives of nine security officers.
At a Friday meeting in Yangon, several ambassadors invited to tour Maungdaw by the government repeated their calls for an “independent and credible investigation” into allegations of human rights abuses in the wake of a crackdown by security forces.
The group also told reporters they had been informed humanitarian access would be resumed this week under supervision.
Mr Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the government should go further and facilitate greater access to journalists investigating claims of human rights abuses, rather than making “veiled threats” against them.
“The best way to prove or disprove allegations of military rights abuses is to allow independent media to probe the accusations,” he said. “If the government truly has nothing to hide, then surely there is no need to restrict media access to areas in northern Rakhine State.”
The government has steadfastly denied reports of human rights abuses against Maungdaw’s Muslim community, maintaining that security forces have conducted themselves lawfully and in a manner proportionate to the October 9 attacks.
In his Facebook post denouncing MacGregor’s October 27 report, Zaw Htay said the government had instructed security forces to “be careful, act according to the law and not violate human rights” while conducting its operations in Maungdaw.
“If someone violates that policy, there are responsibilities in every ranks. We would not accept any kind of violation and not following our orders and directives.”
In a Reuters report published the day after MacGregor’s article appeared, two local journalists who managed to travel to Shey Kya appeared to substantiate the claims that some of the village’s female residents had been sexually assaulted by security forces on October 19.
But Zaw Htay said the allegations were ridiculous.
“There's no logical way of committing rape in the middle of a big village of 800 homes, where insurgents are hiding,” he told Reuters.
History of sensitivity
Reporting on Rakhine State, home to most of Myanmar’s estimated 1.1 million stateless Muslim population, has been highly fraught since an outbreak of communal violence in 2012 left around 200 dead.
Many members of this community self-identify as Rohingya, a designation the government rejects.
About 140,000 people were displaced by the violence — largely Rohingya, along with some members of state’s majority Rakhine population and other Muslim minority groups — and remain in IDP camps.
Despite the formal end of Myanmar’s decades-old pre-publication censorship regime in 2012, numerous journalists have privately reported that articles have been withheld by editors, for fear of a backlash from the government or the wider public.
“It seems some editors and management at independent local media quickly lose their nerve when it comes to reporting on communal conflict in Rakhine,” one foreign reporter, no longer based in Myanmar, told Frontier.
“For fear of upsetting authorities, especially the military, or falling out of favour with what they think are dominant opinions among the Burmese public, stories on alleged abuses against Rohingya Muslims are sometimes dropped or toned down.”
Articles published on Rakhine State are frequently subjected to a torrent of abuse on social media, by individuals who believe the state’s Rohingya Muslim population are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh making false claims to Myanmar citizenship.
Adding to the difficulty of reporting on the subject, misinformation is routinely spread over social media during times of communal conflict in Rakhine State.
During last year’s migrant crisis, in which the dismantling of regional trafficking networks saw thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea, a number of images purporting to show the concurrent massacre of Muslims in Rakhine State were circulated on Facebook. The images were taken from incidents in other countries or from the 2012 violence.
A Myanmar reporter, who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardising his employment, said it had become more difficult to report on Rakhine in the wake of an alleged massacre at Maungdaw’s Duu Chee Yar Tan village in early 2014.
Reports that dozens of people had been killed were denied by the government, and subsequent investigations directed by the government could not find any evidence to substantiate the allegations.
The journalist, who was among a group of local reporters invited on a strictly supervised tour of Maungdaw the week after the October 9 attacks, also said he had been prevented from reporting a quote which appeared to substantiate a claim that security forces had set fire to villages last month.
“The editor cut a sentence about a border guard officer telling our photographer how he had burned down houses,” the Myanmar reporter told Frontier. “The editor said we could not trust the quote and took it out. I did not feel happy about it, but let it be.”
The government has maintained that security forces did not set fire to any homes in Maungdaw, instead saying that villagers had set fire to their own homes.
In his October 28 Facebook post, Zaw Htay appeared to suggest there was a “network” intent on damaging the government’s reputation by spreading false information about the human rights situation.
He made specific reference to Ms Chris Lewa, the head of the Bangkok-based Arakan Project, who was quoted in both MacGregor’s October 27 article and the subsequent Reuters article as corroborating the rape claims in Shey Kya village.
Lewa had previously reported on the Duu Chee Yar Tan allegations, later disputing the claims of a massacre after an on-the-ground investigation.
Speaking to Frontier on Thursday night, Lewa stood by her statements on the Shey Kya incident, citing the Reuters report on the allegations and an analysis by Human Rights Watch of satellite imagery showing homes in Maungdaw had been burned down.
Mr David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the Shey Kya allegations could be resolved by opening Maungdaw up to media.
“The government should be permitting unfettered access for the media to Maungdaw which would transform allegations into verification or refutation,” he said. “Senior government officials have adopted an approach of sneering denial instead of commitment to investigating breaches of the rule of law.”
Additional reporting by Hein Ko Soe. Top photo: Friday's edition of the Myanmar Times. (Steve Tickner / Frontier)