Info Minister Dodges Call to Free Imprisoned Journalists

By Feliz Solomon 27 March 2015

RANGOON — Imprisoned journalists should take their cases to the Supreme Court, Burma’s Minister of Information Ye Htut said at a press freedom summit on Friday, amid calls that he raise the issue of amnesty with the president.

Speaking at the opening session of the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress, held in Rangoon and attended by media and legal experts from across the globe, the minister said the issue is one not for the Ministry of Information but for the courts.

The comment was made in response to suggestions by international media professionals that all incarcerated journalists be freed “as a sign of good faith” in the lead-up to elections later this year.

“I encourage [journalists who have been jailed] to go to the Supreme Court,” said Ye Htut, moments after the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, suggested that the Burmese government “release all journalists who are held in prison right now.”

The minister’s comments immediately came under fire from other attendees. Panelist Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Democracy in Canada, responded that such an approach could only be considered effective recourse if Burma’s legal landscape offered adequate protection for the media.

“The idea of appealing through the Supreme Court is an okay idea if the law is just and proper,” Mendel said, “but the Supreme Court is bound by the provisions of the law, and if the law is not just the court is bound to deal out injustice.”

At least 20 journalists have been arrested in Burma since 2013, among them one who was killed in the custody of the Burma Army. Twelve media workers are currently serving prison sentences, some for up to seven years with hard labor for violating a colonial-era secrecy law that critics call antiquated, vague and susceptible to abuse by authorities.

Burma has made enormous strides toward greater press freedom since undertaking political reforms in 2011; the government has since abolished prepublication censorship and ushered several new media-related laws through Parliament. Nonetheless, grievances about harassment and disproportionate legal action have made media repression a fixture in arguments that the government is “backsliding” on reform.

A number of local publishers boycotted the IPI summit to demonstrate their opposition to the policies of President Thein Sein, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees Burma’s police force, in light of recent detentions.

A spattering of protesters outside the venue on Friday sported a banner reading “Stop attacks on the media!” in response to a recent crackdown on student demonstrators in central Burma during which police indiscriminately assaulted students, observers, monks and reporters. A lone masked demonstrator slipped inside the conference with a poster reading, “Stop beating, arresting, imprisoning journalists”.

A total of 127 people were initially arrested during the chaotic scene on March 10, two of them journalists who have since been released from custody. Dozens of other detainees have also been freed, though 69 were charged this week with rioting and other offenses that could land them in prison for up to three years.

Ye Htut addressed the “unfortunate incident” during Friday’s event, assuring the crowd largely made up of reporters that video footage of the crackdown is being reviewed and that action “may be taken” against police who overstepped their boundaries.

Parliamentarian Phyo Min Thein, a member of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), pointed out that “it is only because of the media that we have that footage,” lamenting that many in power do not yet “have the conception that the media is actually trying to help them.”

Likewise, for many journalists in Burma—who for decades were subjected to censorship and often exile or imprisonment under the former military regime—a deep distrust of authority lingers. Following the police crackdown earlier this month, a campaign led by the Myanmar Journalist Network urged print journals to ignore news and events related to the government.

The network requested that during the IPI Congress local papers dedicate their front pages to a black banner with white script explaining the boycott. About 16 local publishers signed on to the campaign, but several ultimately ran puzzling blacked out covers without the text because their printing houses refused to comply.

Additional reporting contributed by Yen Snaing.