RANGOON — Local media spoke out on Thursday against the detention of two reporters covering a workers’ strike in Rangoon, claiming authorities are tightening their grip over the press as elections near and several protest movements gain traction.
On Wednesday, police detained two journalists—one working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and the other for 7 Day Daily—who were reporting on a strike at several garment factories in the Shwepyithar Industrial Zone of Rangoon’s Insein Township.
At the site, a crowd of about 100 employees of the E-Land, COSTEC and Ford Glory garment factories began a sit-in after police foiled their attempt to march to City Hall on Wednesday morning.
The two reporters were among a total of 15 people detained as police dispersed the crowd, and were released a few hours later when authorities determined that the pair was not taking part in the demonstration, according to a report in state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
On Thursday, 7 Day Daily published a statement in their Burmese-language print edition chastising authorities for wrongfully detaining the journalists and implying that the reporters had violated journalistic ethics.
The statement said that while the journalists had been released from custody, their camera equipment had not yet been returned and “warnings” published in state media could damage the reputation of the paper by leading the public to believe that the reporters had acted unprofessionally.
“I believe that the government is intentionally trying to tighten its grip on the media recently,” said Ahr Mahn, executive director of 7 Day Daily, speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone on Thursday. “As this is a critical moment for us, we should all report cautiously and in line with ethics.”
The statement published in 7 Day Daily described Wednesday’s events, claiming that the journalists had clearly identified themselves as such and were wearing press ID badges. The statement said that a joint force of police and plainclothes men began arresting demonstrators, and warned that they would also arrest journalists.
The 7 Day Daily reporter was approached by police while taking a photograph, the statement said, who then removed his press ID badge, confiscated his camera and “forced him into a police van.”
Ahr Mahn said the incident was indicative of common tactics used by authorities to hamper coverage of sensitive issues such as public demonstrations. Reports have surfaced that Special Branch officers have been embedded at protest sites posing as journalists to glean information and monitor reporters.
“There are many informers among every protest. We’ve seen video clips of police arresting journalists after being informed,” he said, remarking that the practice was “pretty disgusting” and demonstrated a lack of press freedom.
DVB Rangoon Bureau Chief Toe Zaw Latt echoed the remarks, adding that the current relationship between the media and the government is “complicated” and suggesting that there is a larger trend of intimidating reporters. Just last year, another reporter for DVB, Zaw Pe, was jailed in central Burma after questioning a civil servant about a scholarship fund. While he was sentenced to one year in jail, he was released after three months.
“Authorities detained these journalists even though they knew who they were. This means that the government is trying to step up and control the media,” Toe Zaw Latt said. “We also have a general election this year, which is a factor.”
Burma’s Interim Press Council will meet on Friday to discuss a number of recent journalist detentions, according to the council’s temporary Secretary Kyaw Min Swe, to determine whether the arrests occurred “incidentally or intentionally.”
Regarding the government’s warning that reporters should observe media ethics, the secretary called the behavior of the authorities into question.
“If the government says that journalists must be ethical, we will have to question the Ministry of Home Affairs as there are a lot of Special Branch officers pretending to be journalists at events,” said Kyaw Min Swe. “Isn’t that unethical?”