Interview

Myanmar Govt’s Crackdown on Journalists Angers Media and Legal Insiders

By The Irrawaddy 2 April 2020

The government’s crackdown on journalists under the Counter-Terrorism Law this week has attracted public condemnation.

Since Monday, the editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar (VOM) news agency has been jailed for publishing an interview with the Arakan Army (AA) spokesman. The government recently designated the rebel army as a terrorist group.

The editor of Yangon-based Khit Thit Media has been on the run since Tuesday after the police raided his home for republishing the VOM’s story.

Another three journalists from the Rakhine-based Narinjara news outlet were interrogated by police but later released.

However, the editor-in-chief of Narinjara, who is still at large, faces charges under the Counter-Terrorism Law — the same repressive law that the Special Branch used to arrest the VOM editor-in-chief — for the media group’s interview with the AA in a report on fighting in Rakhine State. Here are comments from journalists, lawyers and a writer on the crackdown, condemning the government’s action.

Vox Pop

U Thein Than Oo

Lawyer

I could not understand why they did that. It is about reporters doing their job. In that case, action must be taken under the media law first. Only after that and only when the government thinks that it is not enough and [the reports] violate other laws, lawsuits should be filed under other laws. As a lawyer, I do not agree that lawsuits are filed [under the Counter-Terrorism Law] but not media law. As the Special Branch has filed the lawsuits, we can say that the lawsuits are filed by the [military-controlled] Ministry of Home Affairs. I want to see restraint exercised. We do not know what will happen to the country. As the whole world is overwhelmed by concerns about the pandemic, it is better to exercise restraint in such cases.

Nyi Pu Lay

Writer

I do not like action taken against journalists. I don’t like it at all. It is totally unacceptable to take action against journalists who are doing their jobs. The complaints are filed by the Ministry of Home Affairs. It is not the time for such action. I want them released.

U Than Zaw Aung

Lawyer

Previously, Articles 17 (1) and 17 (2) [of the Unlawful Association Act] were frequently used to file lawsuits against journalists who contacted ethnic armed organizations. But now the authorities use the Counter-Terrorism Law, which carries harsher penalties. This harms the people’s right to information and press freedom. The media law states that journalists are allowed to report on executive and judicial affairs in line with the law. Filing lawsuits against journalists who have contacted organizations that [the government] does not like means the authorities will only allow them to report what they say. Journalists have to contact both sides for accuracy, credibility and impartiality. Media law clearly states that journalists cannot provide one-sided coverage. It is the right of journalists to contact both sides. Filing lawsuits under tough articles, but not media law, hampers not only journalists but also the people’s right to information.

U Ye Naing Moe

Founder, Yangon Journalism School

That lawsuits are filed against journalists under the Counter-Terrorism Law reflects how [the Ministry of Home Affairs] appreciates society. Their appreciation of democracy is zero. Yangon Journalism School firmly believes in the important role of independent journalists in society. Unless they can do their job freely, the country will not follow the right path. These punitive actions indicate that Myanmar’s press freedom is declining. Journalists have been attacked at a time when they are needed most. The Counter-Terrorism Law was wrongfully used. This shows their attitude towards the media. This will be recorded in history. Those who suppress journalists are never remembered well in the history books.

Ko Kyaw Swa Min

Secretary, Myanmar Press Council

We always told to follow the media law if any action to be taken against media personnel. The first procedure under the law is to file an initial complaint with the council. Besides the cases under the media law, the council denounces all lawsuits using other criminal charges against journalists, including under the Counter-Terrorism law.

For the journalists, they must remain unbiased in their coverage and seek comments from both sides, including the AA [Arakan Army] and the military. It is unacceptable to sue journalists for reporting on both sides.

Ko Zayar Hlaing

Editor, Mawkun Magazine

Journalists are oppressed by the repressive laws. I expected this would happen after the government declared [the AA a terrorist group] but I did not think it would happen so quickly. The Counter-Terrorism Law used by [the special branch] carries harsh sentences. It will lead to self-censorship and make unbiased reporting impossible.

We have media law to take action against journalists. But suing them under such harsh laws clearly shows their attitude towards the media.

Ma Mon Mon Myat

Political analyst, freelance journalist

The arrests could force a split between the government and military and the media when we need to fight COVID-19 together. It would not be good for the country. It seems [the authorities] would like to totally silence the AA. Reporters face great risks if they try to cover both sides, including Myanmar’s army and the ethnic armed group. Some reporters could take official statements released by the armed groups [instead of directly contacting them for interviews] to reduce the risk but there will be others who won’t avoid the risk to cover both sides. Whenever there is a dispute between the government or military and journalists, the first step should be a complaint to the council and to hold discussions about compliance with the media law.

Aung Thu Nyein 

Director of Communications at the Institute for Strategy and Policy (ISP) Myanmar

It shouldn’t happen. There are two points. First, the government declared the AA as a terrorist group to try to control the group. But when it comes to repressing journalists who report on the group, it creates a problem for press freedom. Second, we are facing COVID-19 so there are more difficulties for journalists, for example, when attending court hearings. Arresting journalists for speaking to terrorist groups depends on the country. Many journalists meet Muslim organizations which many countries designate as terrorist groups. But those countries have freedom of speech. The arrests are deeply damaging for freedom of the press.

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