MANDALAY — Journalists in Mandalay are planning to submit a complaint to the divisional government, urging authorities to take action against unidentified individuals whose recent heavy-handed intervention in a protest is believed to have been state-sponsored, or at least tacitly approved by local law enforcement.
On Monday, during a protest against an electricity rate hike in Burma’s second city, journalists on the scene of a confrontation between police and demonstrators were violently pushed away from the gathered crowd by men wearing plainclothes.
Journalists targeted by the men, including a photojournalist from the local Mandalay Khit biweekly journal, were pulled away from the crowd while taking photos of the protesters or otherwise attempting to cover the stand-off.
One plainclothes officer ripped the motorcycle helmet off this Irrawaddy reporter and aggressively used his elbows to push her away from the scene, where protestors were engaged in an argument with police officers who were informing them that they would not be allowed to continue the protest.
As the three organizers of the candle-lit protest returned to their homes, in compliance with the orders of law enforcement, journalists attempting to interview a senior police officer about the authorities’ action against the activists were again assaulted by the men in plainclothes, who tried to sweep them from the area. A uniformed police officer shouted out, calling for the arrest of the journalists for impeding the path of the senior officer, and some even ran at the journalists, holding riot shields and wielding rubber truncheons.
As the journalists complained about the plainclothes men’s brutality, uniformed police officers moved to shield them, and one police officer threatened to take legal action against the journalists for disrupting law enforcers in the execution of their duties.
A group of journalists then went to the divisional police headquarters to file a complaint, where the deputy police superintendent denied that their unit had any plainclothes officers and claimed that the unidentified men had not received protection from uniformed personnel on Monday. The senior officer assured the journalists that the press had a right to cover the news unobstructed.
“These actions, however, totally go against the rights of the journalists, which are codified in the recently enacted Media Law. The police said we have the right to cover the news, but the reality is totally different,” said Min Din, associate secretary of the Mandalay Divisional Journalists Association, the group planning to lodge the complaint against the events of Sunday.
The Media Law was enacted by the government on March 14. In Chapter 3 of the legislation, concerning the rights of the press, it states that journalists shall not be arrested and their equipment shall not be confiscated or destroyed by authorities while they are reporting. Another provision requires that authorities ensure protection from harm for journalists.
Min Din pointed out that journalists, particularly in Mandalay Division, were regularly threatened by plainclothes men who were carrying out their campaign against the press with impunity.
“Almost every time, those people have slapped down the cameras and pretended the crowd is pushing them. And sometimes they have tried to block coverage of the scene with their hands, head and bodies,” he said.
“They have also carried cameras, pretending they are journalists. When there is a conflict, they have shouted, urging police to arrest the protesters and activists. In these cases, people might mistakenly think that the journalists are biased and are helping the police to arrest the activists,” he added.
Mandalay-based journalists worry that authorities’ attitude toward press freedom is reverting to the stance adopted by law enforcers under the former military regime.
“It is nothing different from the last three to five years, in which we have had to struggle for freedom of the press. The plainclothes men usually take pictures of us, try to interfere with us in covering the news, as it was back three years ago. We are just afraid the dark era for press freedom will return again,” said Kyaw Zay Win, a Mandalay-based video journalist.