For Burma's Journalists, a Bumpy Road to 'Discipline-Flourishing Democracy'

By Sean Gleeson 17 June 2015

RANGOON — Three years after the end of the country’s draconian pre-publication censorship regime, journalists working in Burma remain fearful of arrest, criminal prosecution and violence, despite legal safeguards ostensibly guaranteeing reporters broad freedoms to operate without interference from authorities.

The tenure of President Thein Sein has been characterized by the dramatic transformation of the local press landscape, and by international measures, the standards of press freedom have risen markedly. Over the course of this decade, the country has progressed from one of the most restrictive media environments in the world to a nation on par with regional neighbors Bangladesh and Cambodia, according to an annual index of world press freedom published by Reporters Without Borders.

Impressions on the ground jar with this optimistic assessment.

Eleven journalists were imprisoned in 2014, including five from the now-defunct Unity Journal sentenced to seven years’ hard labor for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons factory in Magwe Division. Others are currently facing charges.

The death of Par Gyi in military custody last October has made reporters reluctant to cover ethnic conflict and raised questions over the ability of the country’s judicial system to tackle entrenched authority. Foreign journalists have been deported and barred from re-entering the country. Increasingly, reporters are being subjected to intimidation and threats from members of the public, fostering a climate in which journalists are reluctant to report on contentious issues such as ethnic tensions in Arakan State.

According to a new report from Amnesty International, there is an increasing consensus among reporters that Burma’s much-vaunted media reforms are now regressing, and concerns are being raised over the implications for journalists hoping to cover the landmark general elections slated for later this year.

Wrong Side of the Law

On March 27, protestors took to the streets of cities across the country in a coordinated call for the release of student demonstrators arrested in the police crackdown in Letpadan, about 80 miles northwest of Rangoon, two weeks earlier. In Mandalay, around 20 people brandishing fighting peacock flags, the traditional symbol of Burma’s democracy movement, rode motorbikes and distributed leaflets calling on the government to resign.

Reporter Nay Myo Lin was riding his own motorbike to cover the protest for the BBC’s Burmese service when his path was blocked by a police Lance Corporal Ba Maw. Accounts differ as to what happened next. According to a report filed by Ba Maw at the Chanmyathazi Township police station, the reporter struck the officer above his left eyebrow. Nay Myo Lin adamantly denies touching the officer, saying he was startled by Ba Maw entering his field of vision and raised his arms to prevent his motorbike from tipping over.

On May 15, the reporter was arraigned at the township court on charges of violating Article 332 of the Penal Code, “voluntarily causing hurt to deter a public servant from his duty,” and now faces up to three years’ imprisonment.

The 39-year-old told The Irrawaddy he was confident of being exonerated by the facts of the case, but was worried about the possibility of outside pressure being brought to bear on the court.

“I just don’t want to accept a prison term without doing anything wrong,” he said. “If the court has to take the recommendation or order from higher authorities, it is sure to convict me. If it is done in accordance with the law, there will be justice.”

Nay Myo Lin’s case has parallels with that of Zaw Pe, a Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) correspondent who spent three months in prison last year after conviction on similar charges. Initially sentenced for a year before a divisional court appeal, Zaw Pe was accused of trespassing and assault when he went to the offices of the Magwe education minister to inquire about rumors of corruption in a Japanese-funded scholarship program. DVB bureau chief Toe Zaw Latt maintained that the reporter gave prior notice of his visit.

Trust in the judiciary among journalists has further deteriorated as a result of the Par Gyi trial. Following the exhumation of Par Gyi’s corpse, which revealed that the freelance journalist had been shot five times and was possibly subjected to torture, a military tribunal convened behind closed doors last month acquitted two soldiers accused of his death. Last week, the prosecutor in a separate civilian hearing into the matter was abruptly “promoted” to a posting in Maungdaw, a township near the border with Bangladesh renowned as one of the hotspots of ethnic tension in Arakan State.

New Laws, Old Habits

Burma’s Media Law, enacted in March 2014, entitles journalists to a number of rights in the course of their work, including the right to publish information on matters of public interest and the right to enter into government offices in accordance with the regulations applying to those public spaces. The law offers several remedies for professional misconduct, including mediation through the government-appointed Myanmar Press Council and the imposition of relatively small fines for some offenses.

In practice, many journalists who have earned the ire of government or military officials are charged under the Penal Code—notably Article 505(b), a broad provision that punishes statements, rumors or reports “likely to cause fear or alarm to the public,” with violators subject to a maximum sentence of two years in prison. Last October, for instance, five employees of the Bi-Midday Sun received the maximum sentence under the charge for falsely reporting that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government with ethnic leaders.

A new legal framework has also failed to bring an end to entrenched practices of intimidation and harassment from authorities, particularly those of the infamous Special Branch. Over the course of the last year, many journalists have reported surveillance and on-the-spot interrogations from plainclothes operatives while covering contentious issues, such as the nationwide student protests against the National Education Law. At Rangoon’s Shwepyithar Industrial Zone in March, striking garment workers told reporters from The Irrawaddy that Special Branch members had posed as journalists from a local newspaper, interviewing strike leaders before reporting back to police. A phone call at the time to the newspaper in question confirmed that the men did not belong to the outlet.

Amnesty International’s latest report on press freedom in Burma, released on Wednesday, said that many of the provisions in the Media Law are too vague to protect reporters against “arbitrary or abusive application.” The human rights advocacy group warned that existing legislation was insufficient to safeguard freedom of expression.

“Authorities are still relying on the same old tactics—arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time—to muzzle those journalists who cover ‘inconvenient’ topics,” said Amnesty research director Rupert Abbott in a statement. “In fact, the situation for freedom of expression has worsened over the past year.”

Free Speech and Hate Speech

Amnesty’s report on press freedom has also highlighted an alarming trend among local journalists, with many saying they are reluctant to report on issues of ethnic and religious conflict as a result of threats and intimidation by members of nationalist groups.

After false accusations of the sexual assault of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man sparked riots in Mandalay last July, The Irrawaddy’s Zarni Mann, who is also the wife of the BBC’s Nay Myo Lin, said that men wearing Buddhist monk robes and others wielding weapons attempted to destroy her camera and phone and threatened to beat her to death.

“[Afterwards], we saw the picture of our photographer circulated on Facebook by some individuals supporting Buddhist nationalist movements such as 969 and Ma Ba Tha,” she told Amnesty. “Underneath the photo was his name and the message: ‘Find this man, he is a photographer for The Irrawaddy, he reports the news for the Muslims, kill him or destroy his camera.’”

Threats of violence, particularly over social media, are now an inescapable reality for journalists covering contentious issues. Emboldened by Buddhist nationalists, who have regularly accused international media of misrepresenting issues such as the origins of the Rohingya population of Arakan State, many in Burma have taken it upon themselves to harass both news organizations and individual journalists on suspicions of bias or anti-Buddhist sentiment.

One local reporter, who requested anonymity, said that while the harassment had not yet made her fear for her safety, she had changed her online behavior and acted more cautiously when covering controversial subjects.

“It’s always at the back of my mind, especially whenever I travel to [Arakan]. There they see most journalists associated with foreign news agencies as ‘Bengali’ supporters with a hidden agenda,” she told The Irrawaddy, referring to the pejorative word for the state’s Rohingya population.

Complicating matters is the partisan support leant by several local media outlets to the cause of Buddhist nationalist organizations. The Media Law does provide for criminal charges to be leveled against those who publish reports that “inflame conflicts regarding nationality, religion and race,” but the vague wording and potential for broad application has been flagged as a potential tool of repression by Amnesty.

There are also suggestions that wielding the law against publishers who attempted to incite ethnic or religious conflict could backfire, a sentiment shared by the local reporter above.

“Regulation usually fails when it comes to things like that,” she said. “It just pushes these sentiments underground where it’s even harder to monitor and probably more dangerous.

“Burma is [also] still in a transitional phase and we are a long way away from being able to freely report everything that’s happening in the country…In a country with a history like Burma there’s always the danger that increased regulation of online hate speech would end up as another tool of repression,” she added.

In the Immigration Lounge

Burma’s political reforms have been trumpeted as a triumph of Western diplomacy. The flood of outside capital into the country and the surging economy has been accompanied by the arrival of large numbers of international businesspeople, teachers and NGO staffers, and according to the 2014 Census, the number of foreign nationals residing in Burma last year numbered more than 50,000. At the same time, the government remains fearful of outside scrutiny.

The government expects all foreign reporters to be registered on journalist visas. On the surface, this appears straightforward: Visas are obtainable on a three-day service from the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, at a cost of 3,000 baht (US$89) for a one-month single entry or 8,500 baht ($252) for a three-month multiple entry. However, a recommendation letter from the Ministry of Information remains a strict prerequisite, and several journalists based in the region have reported delays in ministry approvals when attempting to cover breaking news.

Many have sought to circumvent these delays by applying for tourist visas. In some instances this has led to foreign journalists being detained and deported by authorities, as was the case for two Spanish photographers covering the student march against the National Education Law in February. In others, an overly risk-averse approach by immigration authorities has led to problems arising from otherwise innocuous visa requests.

One Western reporter based in Thailand was deported from Burma last year, ironically while covering a press freedom protest. His employer was advised by the Ministry of Information that his name had not been added to any “blacklist” but would require permission to re-enter the country from the Ministry of Immigration. After applying and receiving approval for an online visa from the ministry earlier this year for the sole purpose of a family holiday, he was blocked from entering the country after undergoing a screening at Rangoon International Airport.

“When I arrived, with my parents, I was denied entry and told that my identity had matched with a Ministry of Information on-screen customs notice,” he told The Irrawaddy. “The Ministry of Immigration official that dealt with me … told me that even with a visa, I need to receive special clearance from the Ministry of Information, otherwise I would be denied when it came to the ‘routine final check’ undertaken by the immigration officer at the airport.”

At the Ballot Box

The barriers to foreign journalists entering the country are reminiscent of the period before and after Burma’s controversial 2010 elections, during which many outside reporters faced difficulties entering the country as its government began the transition from military junta to constitutional, quasi-civilian rule.

Under this transition, first outlined in the Roadmap to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy of junta-era Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, the 2010 election was to be followed by the apotheosis of Burma’s long and tortuous democratic project: development of a “modern, developed and democratic nation” under the government’s guidance.

Freedom of expression is the linchpin of any democratic state, yet as Burma gears up for this year’s elections, both local and foreign reporters fear increased restrictions on their activities ahead of what is expected to be an emotional, hotly contested poll. For local journalists, who through legal sanction or violence would inevitably bear the brunt of any clampdown, the stakes are higher than at any time in recent years.

Nay Myo Lin, who can expect a verdict in the coming weeks, is understandably pessimistic.

“I think it will be getting much harder as the election gets closer,” he said.