Will the Myanmar Govt Block Journalists from Reporting on Rakhine?

By The Irrawaddy 11 April 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the recent filing of complaints by the Home Affairs Ministry against editors of news outlets based in Yangon, Mandalay and Sittwe under the Counter-Terrorism Law. Myanmar Press Council member U Chit Win Maung and The Irrawaddy contributor Daw Mon Mon Myat join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

As you know, police have detained chief editors of media agencies in Yangon [Khit Thit News], Mandalay [Voice of Myanmar (VOM)] and Sittwe [Narinjara] under the Counter-Terrorism Law. The law should be applied only on those who financially or by other means support terrorism, but now it has been used to target journalists.

Despite the fact that the 2014 Media Law provides for the rights of journalists, some journalists, myself included, have faced lawsuits under Section 66 (d) [of the Telecommunications Law] as well as Article 5050 (b) [of the Penal Code]—and in the case of [Reuters reporters] Ko Wa Lone [and Kyaw Soe Oo], they faced lawsuits under the State Secrets Act.

Now, one more law has been applied to target journalists. U Chit Win Maung, you have recently written an article on the fact that journalism is still not a crime. What do you have to say about the latest lawsuits against journalists?

Chit Win Maung: As the job of journalists is to provide correct and credible information that the public should know for the sake of the country and the nation, it has nothing to do with crime. This is the message of my article.

There are two points I would like to make regarding the case: the first is that the conflict continues between the Tatmadaw [the Myanmar military] and the AA [Arakan Army] since it broke out last year in northern Rakhine State. Secondly, our country is undergoing a democratic transition. As such, we should review to evaluate whether there have been any threats to press freedom.

It is very sad that the conflicts between the Tatmadaw and the AA are not yet over. Clashes have been taking place in Kyauktaw, Minbya, Ponnagyun, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung and Chin State’s Paletwa, which borders on northern Rakhine. Over 130,000 people, most of them Rakhine people, have been forced from their homes into camps. This is the outcome of the fighting between the Myanmar army and the AA.

Civilians have fallen victim to the fighting. They have been killed by artillery shells that landed on their villages, they have been detained, held hostage and tortured. We can’t blame a particular side for these things. They are a product of the fighting. Unless and until the fighting ends, these problems will continue to exist. The Myanmar military still can’t stop the fighting.

The entire world is now faced with the pandemic. United Nations Secretary-General [António] Guterres has called for a global ceasefire while the entire world is dealing with the pandemic. But clashes are still ongoing in Rakhine State. Under such circumstances, the Home Affairs Ministry raided the three news agencies, seized computers and made interrogations. It is not very long that we have enjoyed democratic rights. Such raids on news agencies were only witnessed under military rule, but, until recently, not since the country introduced democracy. The military just filed lawsuits [against journalists] in previous cases. But now, they have done this to news agencies.

Is it a threat to the media? There were peace talks between the government and the four-member Northern Alliance [of which the AA is a member]. But in Rakhine State, when one side declared a ceasefire, another side violated it. We don’t know which side is actually violating a given ceasefire, but the government has now finally declared the AA to be a terrorist group. This has pushed the AA away from the peace negotiation table.

With the AA designated as a terrorist group, it is easier for the military to fight them. First, an internet shutdown was imposed in Rakhine State to restrict the movement of the AA. As a second step, the three media outlets that have been continuously covering the Rakhine issues were raided. But we are concerned about press freedom. There is the Media Law, enacted in 2014, in place. The Counter-Terrorism Law, which has been applied against journalists, was enacted in 2014 too. Journalists should only be tried under the Media Law. The media and the Counter-Terrorism Law are unrelated.

YN: When we journalists cover armed conflicts, we usually focus on the plight of civilians. In doing so, we try to include the voices of all sides. But as the AA has been declared a terrorist group and these journalists were detained under the Counter-Terrorism Law, we have not been able to include the voices of the AA in other stories.

By detaining those journalists, they have given the message to others that we are not allowed to contact the AA. The entire media landscape is changing with [the Tatmadaw’s imposition of] greater restrictions on the media due to its perception that the media is being manipulated to spread propaganda. This has forced newsrooms to change their editorial policies. Under such circumstances, how should newsrooms respond, Ma Mon Mon Myat?

Mon Mon Myat: After exile media like DVB [Democratic Voice of Burma] and yours, The Irrawaddy, returned to the country as the political system has changed, you have had to adjust your editorial policies according to the existing laws of the country. Such media agencies, when they were in exile, were close to organizations based on the border, so it was easier to get their voices. But as [media outlets] have returned to the country, it is important to make sure they are officially recognized so that they can publish official news for the public. They also need to review their positions.

In this age of digital media, even if we can’t contact an armed organization which is declared by the government to be a terrorist group, that organization can use its own digital media to issue statements and the like. For example, when there was fighting between the Tatmadaw and ARSA [the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] in 2017, ARSA used Twitter and Facebook to issue statements, and media made reports based on those statements. It is dangerous for media agencies to contact organizations that have been declared unlawful associations.

If it has become difficult for media outlets to provide the people with the voices of the other side, there is the option that I have mentioned. Media agencies can make reports based on their statements and online pages. Media ethics also require media agencies to do so. Local media agencies must report the voices of both the government and ethnic armed organizations. So, they could try the option that I’ve mentioned. Only then will they be able to continue operation in the long term. They need to think about how they can operate within the boundaries of the press law and relevant laws and regulations of the government.

YN: At a time when we should work together to address the COVID-19 pandemic, they have detained journalists. This is sad. When the military dropped their charges against me, one of the reasons the military gave was that it wanted to have good relations with the media. What can the Press Council do for the three detained journalists?

CWM: The Press Council and the Tatmadaw have maintained contact. In previous cases of lawsuits filed by the military, there were cases in which the military directly filed complaints with us, and some cases could be settled through negotiations. For example, in the case of Eleven Media, it was possible to settle it through negotiations.

The Press Council has a responsibility to intervene in cases related to journalists. The media is the fourth estate and provides essential and accurate information in the interests of the country. We at the Press Council are responsible for protecting the media.

The Press Council has sent a letter to the Home Affairs Minister regarding the detentions. As the Media Law is in place, legal action should only be taken under the Media Law. Complaints can be filed with the Press Council if a journalist or a news agency violates the journalistic code of ethics, and we will settle it under the Media Law. I think it is too harsh to file lawsuits against journalists under the Counter-Terrorism Law.

Those journalists did their jobs and they did not aid or abet terrorism. Even if they did so, complaints can be filed with the Press Council and we will handle it. We want journalists to be tried only under the media law. Some organizations have voiced criticisms that penalties prescribed in the Media Law are not tough enough and that the law therefore doesn’t serve as a deterrent [to prevent journalists from violating the code of ethics]. But my view is that journalists are doing their job and it is the responsibility of the Press Council to make sure they abide by journalism ethics. So if a lawsuit is to be filed against a journalist, there should be consultation with the Press Council first.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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