Journalists Raise Alarm Over Shorter Visas in Burma

Journalists in black caps and T-shirts gather outside the courtroom in Rangoon's Dagon Township to protest defamation charges against the Voice Weekly journal in August 2012. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Journalists in black caps and T-shirts gather outside the courtroom in Rangoon’s Dagon Township to protest defamation charges against the Voice Weekly journal in August 2012. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

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.

3 Responses to Journalists Raise Alarm Over Shorter Visas in Burma

  1. Thein Sein administration may think it can successfully cheated the citizens of Myanmar and the people of the world. We expected from this regime since day one that it was untrustworthy. Now, we are seeing its color clearly. Thein Sein and Shwe Mann talked loud about amending the constitution but they are not serious to do it so. If Shwe Mann fails to lead USDP dominated Hlutdaws to amend the constitution and Thein Sein fails to implement to protect freedom of press/media, they will be hated and voted out by the people. I am sure the people are so angry at them as they cheat on the nation and her citizens.

  2. Myanmar will chair ASEAN. So, ASEAN is led by thief. Well! ASEAN itself has been den for crooks and thieves for the past many years anyway.

  3. George Than Setkyar Heine

    “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).
    Another way to put it in perspective: YOU GUYS ARE GOING TO GET THE BOOT sooner than you think, any bets?
    It is 2014 man!
    I AM PUTTING MY MONEY ON ONE OF THE MONKEYS – Shwe Mann, Myint Swe, Min Aung Hlaing not the least – RUNNING ROUGH SHOD at Naypyidaw today for that matter and MAKE A FEW DOLLARS – not worthless tissue paper money KYAT – MORE for the better man.
    Suu Kyi’s PRESIDENCY in Burma is MISSION IMPOSSIBLE for the NLD and Suu Kyi as well, any bets?
    Than Shwe and his bunch WILL NOT LET IT HAPPEN as well man, trust me.
    However, the DESIRE/WILL of the PEOPLE of BURMA IS VITAL and INSTRUMENTAL as well in MAKING that MISSION POSSIBLE of course.
    That is WHAT I CALL “PEOPLE POWER” man!
    That is only the FIRST STEP in their STRATEGY to HIJACK the 2015 ELECTIONS, don’t argue man!
    GAGGING the MEDIA is the FIRST/PRIMARY WEAPON EMPLOYED by any/every DICTATOR on this PLANET as well.
    And the REST WILL FOLLOW in DUE COURSE of TIME and SPACE as well, trust me.
    Hence, THINGS WILL GET DICEY and BITCHY as well in the run up to 2015 ELECTIONS in Burma of course.
    Next THERE WILL BE KNOCKS ON THE DOORS IN THE MIDDLE of the NIGHT for HIGH PROFILE PEOPLE, Min Ko Naing and his 8888 Generation Students Group, members/supporters of the NLD and even Suu Kyi is NO EXCEPTION for that matter, trust me.
    The HANDSHAKE between Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing led 8888 Generation Students group TRIGGERED the MATTER – media gag – and ALL HELL WILL BREAK LOOSE soon as well in the run up to the 2015 ELECTIONS, any bets?

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