Analysis: Government Turning Back the Clock on Press Freedom

By Lawi Weng 15 December 2017

On the evening of Dec. 13, an image of two detained reporters appeared on the Ministry of Information’s Facebook page. It showed the two men handcuffed to each other and made to stand behind a table. In a departure from the ministry’s usual practice, their faces were clearly visible. The photo has prompted an angry reaction on the part of many Myanmar journalists toward the MOI. On the table in front of the pair are two mobile phones and a number of documents found in their bags. To many observers, the ministry’s treatment of the pair as common criminals — or worse, given that it did try to conceal their identities — is a step too far.

According to the MOI, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained on Tuesday night in Yangon after approaching police who had recently participated in clashes against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in Maungdaw, about obtaining documents to assist in their coverage of the conflict.

The MOI claims the reporters tried to steal documents in order to sell them to international media. In fact, as reporters for an international news agency, they were planning to share the information with senior editorial staff, which is part of their job. The MOI, which has been criticized as a government propaganda arm, deliberately distorted the facts of the case.

On social media, some people posted messages urging a boycott of state-run newspapers. Some people even said the MOI violated media ethics by posting the photos without obscuring the reporters’ identities. The Yangon Journalism School has stopped training MOI personnel to protest the dissemination of the photograph.

U Than Oo, editor of the state-run Myanmar News Agency, said that the MOI cannot change the facts it receives from the Interior Ministry. “We report the news according to journalistic ethics and based on the facts. We can’t change the facts.”

Regarding the decision not to black out the reporters’ faces, U Than Oo suggested The Irrawaddy consult the news editors of the newspapers that ran the picture. At any rate, he added, “Everyone knows who the perpetrators were, so it was unnecessary to black out their faces in the photo.”

He said the MOI usually blacks out the faces of people who have been accused of a crime but not yet convicted.

“We know [the reporters] were the perpetrators. This is my understanding,” he said.

The MOI initially posted the image online, without obscuring the faces. It later blacked them out after the post drew harsh criticism. On Thursday, however, the image appeared with the faces visible in two state-run newspapers, Myanmar Alin and The Mirror Daily.

The MOI normally blacks out the faces of arrested people in photos posted online.

The director of the Yangon Journalism School said the MOI’s action had damaged the reporters’ reputations. In protest, two trainers from the school had decided to cancel a weeklong training session for MOI staff in Naypyidaw.

“This wasn’t a joint training program with the MOI, but they had asked us for help. Some of our trainers had agreed to help by holding a training session this month. But, when we saw the report attacking Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, and the way the photo of the pair was used, in our view this offends their dignity.

“Our trainers felt bad, so they decided not to provide the training, which was supposed to have lasted for a week in Naypyidaw,” YSJ director U Ye Naing Moe told The Irrawaddy.

The MOI is trying to create problems between the people and the media. It uses taxpayers’ money but makes propaganda for the government,” said U Zay Yar Hlaing, editor of Maw Kun (Archive) magazine.

“The MOI’s action was inappropriate and aimed at turning the people against the media. Their report was an act of government propaganda,” he said.

Direct censorship of news media no longer exists in Myanmar, but journalists come under pressure in other ways as they try to fulfill the two aspects of their job; gathering and publishing facts. Instead of censoring articles as in the past, these days authorities are more likely to, for example, block reporters from traveling to areas like Maungdaw to report.

Another form of censorship is charging reporters with serious offenses. This is censorship through intimidation. Authorities also publish false information in order to mislead the public about the media.

“Parliament cannot control the government. So when the media tries to exert pressure, the government acts against it,” said U Zay Yar Hlaing.

This shows that Myanmar is still subject to serious censorship, he said, adding that things were occurring on the ground in Maungdaw that the government did not want the domestic or international media to know.

Myanmar appears to be turning back the clock on press freedom, critics say, with authorities using various charges to prosecute journalists, just as previous military governments did. The government has used articles including 66 (d) (defamation law), 17 (1) (unlawful association), the trespassing law, and, as in the case of the Reuters reporters, the Official Secrets Act.

The arrest of the two reporters showed that the media in Myanmar is under threat, said Mratt Kyaw Thu, a reporter from Frontier Myanmar.

“Personally, I didn’t expect much in the way of media reform from this government, especially for our journalism industry, much less the Army. But when I saw [the arrested journalists] in the paper and on government social media, I was just….damn!” he said.