YANGON—On the occasion of International Press Freedom Day, the Myanmar Press Council, international diplomats and journalists said Friday that Myanmar is facing challenges in terms of press freedom, and urged the government to allow journalists more access to information and greater freedom to operate.
In a statement released on Friday, the country’s independent body for settling press disputes, overseeing journalistic ethics and protecting media members denounced prosecutions of journalists under criminal charges rather than the country’s Media Law.
A number of journalists in Myanmar have been sued under the Unlawful Association Act, Telecommunications Act, State Defamation Act and Official Secrets Act. They have been subjected to criminal prosecution for their work by both the government and military. Two local journalists from Reuters are now serving seven-year prison sentences for their investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya men in northern Rakhine State as part of a military-led campaign that began in 2017. The military also recently sued The Irrawaddy under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act for its coverage of fighting between government troops and the Arakan Army. And last year, three journalists from Eleven Media were sued by the Yangon government for incitement.
According to Athan, a Yangon-based group that promotes freedom of expression, there have been 23 cases brought against the media under the Telecommunications Act and 31 journalists have been put on trial.
Myanmar climbed 20 places in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index between 2013 and 2017 but has since slipped and is now ranked 138 out of 180 countries.
The Press Council warned that restrictions on press freedom could lead to a decline in democracy in the country.
“Charging journalists under the Unlawful Association Act, Telecommunications Act, State Defamation and Official Secrets Act at will to sue, detain and sentence is not appropriate for a democracy,” the Press Council said in its statement.
“The government needs to create more access to information and freedom of expression for the media to [raise] the country’s press freedom index,” it added.
European Union Ambassador Kristian Schmidt told The Irrawaddy that it in the EU’s view it appears that the courts are being used to intimidate journalists from reporting the truth—something he said was incompatible with the rule of law and the transition to democracy.
“The European Union is concerned about a worrying trend of freedom of expression and freedom of the media in Myanmar, and therefore we join others—and I would say, this is not the foreigners pointing fingers. We are repeating messages that have been conveyed by Myanmar civil society itself, so we simply add our voice of support to those voices of concern,” he said.
Netherlands Ambassador Wouter Jurgens said he sees a worrying trend around the world where there is more limited space for freedom of expression for journalists and the media, and this was evident in Myanmar. He called on the NLD government to change the laws—including the Unlawful Association Act, Telecommunications Act, State Defamation and Official Secrets Act—under which journalists have been sued and under which many of the party’s leaders themselves suffered for years.
The ambassador also encouraged the military to live up to the promise to transition to democracy that it made years ago by allowing for space for the population, including for journalists.
“They have said time and time again [they plan] to normalize, to be part of a family of states, not to depend on one or two countries but to be a respected partner in the international community. So this is their opportunity to show that what they’ve said is also what they want, to live up to their own promises that they made to their own population,” he said.
Journalists also agreed that the imprisonment and lawsuits against the media simply reflect the true situation of press freedom in the country.
“It’s disappointing to see something unfit for a democracy,” said Daw Aye Aye Win, a former Associated Press journalist.
“Jailing journalists and intimidating them are threats to a free press. The ruling government doesn’t seem to encourage [a free press],” she said.
On Friday, President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi sent messages to the Press Council in commemoration of International Press Freedom Day.
The president said that fake and biased news, hate speech and coverage of sensitive conflicts needed to be controlled according to the journalistic code of conduct and ethics because they had the potential to affect the processes of national development and democratic transition.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said freedoms should not be abused in a transitional democracy like Myanmar, lest the country face conflict and instability.
“I solemnly urge all media people to work for the gradual disappearance of dogmatic beliefs and biased views in Myanmar society and for the flourishing [of] habits to promote objectives and logical thinking; furthermore to work for the emergence of peaceful and just societies where everyone has the right to participate in equality.”