RANGOON — Burma’s powerful military remains intolerant of press freedom, fearing a negative portrayal of its institution.
Take three incidents as examples.
The army sued the local private newspaper 7 Day Daily on June 25 for publishing a story in April which reprinted former general Shwe Mann’s message to graduates of the Defense Services Academy. The statement urged his former colleagues to work for the country’s newly-elected democratic government.
The military claimed the article could lead to disunity in the army and encourage treason, and filed a lawsuit under Section 131 of Burma’s Penal Code against the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and the journalist who reported the story. The violation carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.
The lawsuit was later dropped following negotiations, but the newspaper printed an apology to the military in state media last week as part of the settlement.
Does the military pose a threat to the media under the new government?
The 7 Day Daily case has been considered a threat to press freedom because it showed that the media could be sued if it upset the military, even if the reporting was accurate.
“The military’s attitude is the same as in the past; they don’t like if we touch them,” said Ko Thiha, an editor from the local newspaper.
Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN), a press advocacy group, denounced the case.
MJN said journalists would undergo self-censorship because of the incident and it would harm the public’s right to know.
“The government needs to persuade the military to change its attitude in order to smooth over relations with the media,” Ko Thiha said.
“We had to resolve it on our own. There was no mediation from the Ministry of Information [MOI]. The MOI shared [7 Day Daily’s] apology on their website even though they have not shared similar content in the past. It is clear which side MOI is on and whom they are afraid of,” he added.
Although Burma is now ruled by its first civilian government after more than half a century of junta rule, the military still has a strong influence in politics. The 2008 military-drafted Constitution is still in place and remains difficult to amend, as 25 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for military appointees, giving them veto power over constitutional amendments. The armed forces also maintain control of three important ministries: home affairs, defense and border affairs.
Former information minister Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy that although 7 Day Daily didn’t breach journalistic ethics when reporting, the military had cause to worry.
“The media needs to know that the army has concerns related to unity and they need to be careful in their reporting when it could lead to the disintegration of the military,” he said. “The media has a duty to report what the public needs to know, but at the same time, they need to be careful not to be manipulated by politicians,” the former information minister added.
Prior to the 7 Day Daily incident, the movie “Twilight over Burma” was banned from being screened publicly and removed from a film festival by the censorship board, which alleged that the film could damage the image of the army and harm ethnic unity.
The film tells the story of ethnic Shan leader Sao Kya Seng—who was arrested by the Burma Army during Gen Ne Win’s coup and later disappeared under mysterious circumstances—and his Austrian wife.
Human rights activist Moe Thway said “the ban on the movie was ugly,” adding that the military’s violation of press freedom was a negative sign during the government transition.
“Whether the army, ethnic groups or anyone else did wrong, it should be exposed. The public has the right to know. Only if we expose wrongdoings from the past will we not repeat them in the future,” he said.
Besides the film and media industries, civil society organizations have also been targeted.
Last week, the Ta’ang Women’s Organization (TWO) was forced to cancel a press conference for the launch of its report on human rights abuses by the Burma Army in northern Shan State.
The Rangoon divisional government forced the cancellation of the press conference for the second time; the first time was in late June. TWO’s recent report, entitled “Trained to Torture,” compiled accounts of ethnic Palaung (Ta’ang) victims of torture from 2012-16.
Ye Naing Moe, director of the Yangon Journalism School, said that freedom of the press and freedom of expression must be recognized on the path toward democracy.
“The army chief said the military would cooperate and support the transition to democracy, and that is impossible without press freedom,” he added.
The recent incidents raise the question of whether the military has confidence in their actual image, as opposed to the one that they project, said Ma Thida, prominent writer and president of the literacy organization PEN Myanmar.
“These truths are easily discovered in other ways. As for 7 Day’s story, the public could easily find Shwe Mann’s comments on his Facebook; for “Twilight over Burma,” translated versions of the book are available. [The military] may think it is protecting the image of the institution but in reality, it is only harming itself,” she added.
San Yamin Aung is a reporter for The Irrawaddy English Edition.
Additional reporting contributed by Kyaw Hsu Mon.