Journalists Say Press Freedom Declining in Myanmar

By San Yamin Aung 2 May 2018

YANGON — Recent survey results show that local journalists think media freedom is declining in Myanmar, and increasingly believe the government and military pose the main threat to an independent press.

Free Expression Myanmar, an advocacy group campaigning for freedom of expression and legal reform, surveyed 200 working journalists across the country between December 2017 and April 2018.

A report summarizing the findings of the survey states that journalists’ initial optimism that the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government would take significant steps to increase media freedom has been replaced by the belief that not only have there been no reforms, but overall media freedom has actually deteriorated.

“Journalists are frustrated by the government’s failure to implement its election manifesto commitments to increase media freedom,” reads the report, which was launched on Wednesday, one day ahead of World Press Freedom Day 2018.

The NLD manifesto released in 2015 clearly states: “The news media is the eyes and ears of the people. We will ensure that the media has the right to stand independently in accordance with self-regulation of matters relating to ethics and dignity, and the right to gather and disseminate news.”

Yet, since the administration took office in March 2016, a number of local media outlets have been taken to court by the country’s most powerful institutions, including the military.

Various laws have continued to be used as weapons of press oppression, according to the report. These include not only online defamation charges, but also colonial-era legislation such as the Official Secrets Act and the Unlawful Associations Act.

At least 11 journalists were arrested last year under various repressive laws for gathering information or traveling to conflict areas to conduct their work, and for criticizing officials.

U Han Zaw, secretary of the PEN Myanmar Center, said at an event to launch the report on Wednesday that fear of being sued was growing among journalists and editors, adding that this had led to self-censorship.

“This is a significant factor in the decline of media freedom,” he said.

Some 49 percent of the surveyed journalists believed they had less freedom of expression compared to a year ago, while 41 percent believed they had the same freedom. Only 11 percent thought that they had more freedom.

The report states that the journalists believe the government and the military are the greatest threats to media freedom in Myanmar, given their continued used of old oppressive laws, which they have no real plans to amend, and adoption of new restrictions.

It also states that the courts and their regressive interpretation of Myanmar’s laws pose a significant threat to media freedom.

“Journalists are concerned about the courts’ unwillingness to listen to expert testimony, to refer cases to the Myanmar Press Council, or to interpret laws in favor of Myanmar’s new democratic aims,” the report states.

Yin Yadanar Thein, co-founder and program manager of Free Expression Myanmar, told The Irrawaddy that the survey’s aim is to advocate for legal reforms. She said that the survey serves as evidence of the declining state of Myanmar’s press freedom based on journalists’ perceptions. This provides a more solid basis for advocating legal reform than simply the opinions of civil society organizations, Yin Yadanar Thein said.

“There are a lot of repressive laws including in the Penal Code. The government is neglecting to abolish those. Even if they consider that abolishment is impossible, they could make amendments in favor of freedom of expression,” she said.

The report makes five recommendations to the government and the military: to conduct open and inclusive consultations with journalists on legal reform, which includes both changing laws and changing the behaviors of government officials; to end the state media monopoly including military-owned media; to immediately remove all barriers to the media’s access to conflict areas; to ensure that no government official acting in an official capacity brings any criminal complaint against a journalist until legal reforms are implemented; and to ensure that all allegations of violence against journalists are investigated transparently.

The reports will be sent to the Ministry of Information, the Myanmar Press Council and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.

Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 press freedom index ranked Myanmar 137th out of 180 assessed countries. This was a drop of six places from the previous ranking.

India, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and China placed at No. 138, 140, 142, 145 and 176, respectively.

The annual report published last week reflects growing animosity towards journalists around the world.