RANGOON — Journalists say the Burma government is imposing new visa restrictions that will make it difficult for them to remain based in the country full time.
The Ministry of Information has started denying requests for three- to six-month journalist visas for foreign passport holders who work at formerly exiled media groups—including The Irrawaddy—which were previously based abroad but have returned to Burma during the country’s transition from military rule. At the end of last month, the ministry started granting visas to some journalists that are only valid for a fraction of the requested time, despite a lack of any official announcement about a policy change.
“I only got 28 days,” said Toe Zaw Latt, an Australian passport holder who works as the Rangoon bureau chief for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
Over the past year he and other journalists at his news agency have received three- to six-month journalist visas, with the option to renew inside the country. After applying as usual for a three-month visa last month, he was granted a four-week stay on Jan. 31 and told that he would need to go abroad to reapply in the future, due to a change in regulations.
“It’s not a good sign to see that kind of restriction at this moment, as Burma will have the Asean meetings and elections in the next year,” he said, referring to general elections in 2015 and Burma’s obligations as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year.
Formerly based in Norway, DVB set up shop in Rangoon last year, while The Irrawaddy opened an office in the city in 2012 after operating for two decades in Thailand. Both media groups publish in Burmese and English languages, and both employ foreigners as editors and reporters, while some Burmese staff members hold foreign passports from their time in exile.
Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information and the president’s spokesman, said the government changed visa regulations because some journalists had renewed their visas several times without setting up offices inside the country.
“We give six-month multiple-entry visas to anyone and their family members who work for any official news agency in Burma,” he told The Irrawaddy last week on Friday. Days later, the ministry granted a two-week journalist visa to a senior staff member at The Irrawaddy who had applied for three months.
Two other editors at the magazine were forced to leave Burma over the weekend after their visas expired and their renewal requests were denied. They are now working from The Irrawaddy’s office in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and are awaiting a response from the ministry on a second request for a visa.
In an interview last year with The Guardian newspaper, Ye Htut said journalists who traveled in and out of Burma could receive multiple-entry visas valid for between three and six months. He told the British publication that journalists who intended to set up a foreign bureau in the country would be granted visas that were valid for up to one year.
Journalists with other local and international news agencies declined to comment when asked whether they had been affected by the recent change in visa regulations. It is likely that most foreign journalists in the country have not tried to renew their visas since the policy changes went into effect, only within the past two weeks or so.
Burma’s government has been praised for loosening its grip on the press after decades of authoritarian rule. Since taking office in 2011, President Thein Sein has ended pre-publication censorship, invited exiled media to operate officially inside the country, and allowed privately owned daily newspapers to publish.
But the government has also accused journalists of misusing newfound freedoms by reporting misinformation. Last month state-run media criticized The Associated Press and The Irrawaddy after both publications reported allegations by a rights group that dozens of Rohingya Muslims had been massacred in Maungdaw Township, Arakan State. Although the United Nations has backed these reports, saying it received credible information that 48 Muslims were killed, the government has vehemently denied the allegations.
The Ministry of Information called representatives of the AP into its office for a talk after the international news wire made its report. The Foreign Affairs Ministry later blocked reporters from the AP, The Irrawaddy, Voice of America, Mizzima and The Myanmar Times from attending a press briefing about Maungdaw.
Earlier this month, the chief executive and four journalists from Rangoon-based Unity journal were arrested and detained after the publication ran a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Burma. Ye Htut slammed the journal’s story as “baseless” because it lacked official sources, and he defended the arrests as valid under the 1923 Official Secrets Act.
Thiha Saw, editor in chief of the English-language Myanma Freedom Daily, said he was aware of visa problems at other news organizations, but added that his publication had been unaffected so far. “It hasn’t come to me and my editors yet, because they got their visas just before all this happened,” he told The Irrawaddy last week.
“It all started with the AP’s stories on the Maungdaw incidents. AP guys were called in by the minister of information and sort of ‘scolded.’ Then came the visa issues. It looks like the MOI is still quite powerful in meddling with our lives. My view is that it’s just temporary and things will get back to normal conditions sooner or later.”
In light of recent events, Human Rights Watch has called on the Burma government to prioritize media reform.
“Recent harassment of Burmese and international reporters over journalist visas marks a sinister backsliding in the much-touted media reform sector,” David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma for HRW, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “International donors and diplomats must be aware that freedoms of the media are a key barometer in the sincerity of Thein Sein’s reforms, and the climate is decidedly cooler now. The Ministry of Information has to pull back from this spiteful harassment of journalists doing their jobs.”
Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said visa restrictions sent a clear signal that foreign news organizations were not entirely welcome in the country and would be subject to arbitrary penalties for critical news coverage.
“It appears authorities are reverting to the previous junta’s divide-and-rule tactic of rewarding news outlets that give generally favorable coverage to the government and punishing those that are more critical. We are particularly concerned that former exile-run media groups that have recently established bureaus in Burma and downsized their foreign operations are being targeted,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Phone Myint Aung, a lawmaker with the New National Democratic Party, said the government had the right to restrict visas for foreign journalists. However, he said that if media groups raised concerns and presented evidence, he would bring the issue before Parliament.
“It would be problematic if the government allowed tourist visas while banning journalists,” he said. “Maybe the government is afraid some journalists who are not based here will make a surprise visit and do controversial reporting.”
In neighboring Thailand, media visas are initially valid for three months with a single entry, but can be extended for up to one year after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a letter addressed to the immigration department and the police.