RANGOON —Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Burma government to accept criticism in the press and refrain from using criminal law against journalists.
The US-based global rights group elected to hold its annual board of directors meeting in Burma this year to highlight the critical point the country is at in the program of reforms undertaken since a nominally civilian government took power in 2011, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said Thursday at a press conference in Rangoon following meetings with high-level officials.
Roth said a meeting with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw on Wednesday was “constructive,” but that other officials were less willing to engage.
“We raised a number of points, and he responded with real dialogue, and it was clear his commitment to reform,” Roth said of the president.
“But, frankly, in the course of the day when we met the senior-most advisor to the president, the key ministers from defense, homes affairs, foreign affairs, information, etc., it was clear that the government is divided, and that there are some who are quite committed to a reform process, and others who would like to slow it down.”
Roth praised the progress that has been made on media freedom in Burma—where pre-publication censorship was abandoned in 2012—but noted recent “pressure” on media operating in the country.
Following reports from rights groups and the United Nations last month that dozens of Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State were killed in a violent crackdown in the township of Maungdaw, the government reacted angrily to news reports of the allegations. Associated Press journalists were called into the Ministry of Information for a rebuke over their reporting.
This week, ethnic Rohingya member of Parliament Shwe Maung was questioned over comments he made to the Democratic Voice of Burma news agency alleging police involvement in a fire that occurred in Maungdaw weeks after the alleged massacre.
Also in the past week, four journalists and a news executive at the Burmese-language Unity journal have been detained under the Official Secrets Act for reporting allegations that a military facility in Magwe Division’s Pauk Township is a chemical weapons factory. Press freedom advocates have called for their release.
While Roth did not comment on the incidents specifically, he urged the government to be more tolerant of reporting that officials may not like.
“There are parts of the government that have not yet accepted that the press is not their mouthpiece, that the role of the media is not simply to serve as a propaganda organ for the government and the military, but rather to serve as an independent voice, to disagree with the government and disagree with itself, that a healthy media environment is one in which there is a diversity of voices and debate,” Roth said.
“I think that acceptance of that—acceptance of a culture where that is desirable rather than seen as a threat—is a shift that is still underway.”
He said the HRW delegation urged the government to ensure that new laws covering the media did not lead to criminal charges being used to regulate the press.
“We heard from some officials that, ‘The press got this wrong, the press got that wrong.’ And our answer was: ‘The government should rebut the press,’” he said. “It should have a debate. Let the truth prevail through conversation, not through the heavy-handed mechanism of the criminal law.”
Brad Adams, executive director of HRW’s Asia division, said he met with Ministry of Information officials, and that they agreed criminal law should not be used in publication offenses.
In meetings with the government, HRW also raised concerns about the government’s handling of violence in Arakan State, and repeated a call for a transparent investigation into the allegations of killings last month, according to Adams.
The group asked the government to ensure humanitarian access to people displaced by violence in the conflict with ethnic rebels in Kachin State, Roth said. “We were told repeatedly that there is humanitarian access. People can go. That’s not what we hear from a number of our humanitarian partners. But this is a commitment that certainly deserves to be tested,” said Roth.
He said he also urged Thein Sein to keep a promise he made to US President Barack Obama that he would allow the UN’s human rights agency to establish an office in Burma.
“The government has a presumptive preference that the office simply provides technical assistance. But, as we explained to the government, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights would never set up an office simply to provide technical assistance in a country at this stage in the reform process,” he said.