Media Watchdog Condemns Threats Against Reporters in Meikhtila Riots

By Saw Yan Naing 26 March 2013

Journalists covering the recent violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the central Burma city of Meikhtila were harassed by monks and their supporters, a media rights watchdog has said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a statement on Monday expressing concern over the treatment of journalists covering the situation in Meikhtila near Mandalay.

The communal violence that has killed at least 40 people is the most deadly round of killing since attacks in Arakan State in western Burma late last year killed at least 180 people and displaced 110,000.

According to the report, journalists working for leading media organizations—including the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Radio Free Asia, Democratic Voice of Burma and The Irrawaddy—were threatened by anti-Muslim mobs, which threatened them and forced some journalists to delete footage and pictures from their cameras.

“CPJ is greatly disturbed by the reports of Buddhist monks harassing and threatening journalists covering the recent sectarian riots in Burma. Their crude attempts to censor the news through threats of violence indicates an awareness that their actions are illegal and they are trying to suppress recordings of their roles in the death and destruction in Muslim communities,” said Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative of the CPJ.

According to Rangoon-based journalists, nine reporters and photographers were trapped by the Buddhist mobs, which were ransacking a Muslim area in the city, but were later rescued by police.

RFA also reported that that one of its reporters was among the nine journalists who were intimidated as they were photographing monks destroying a mosque in Meikhtila.

“Our concern is that government authorities could claim that free reporting from the conflict area has heightened passions and contributed to the violence. Reporters are providing an invaluable service in making independent records of the violence. Under no circumstances should authorities target journalists for inciting racial hatred for merely reporting events as they happen,” added Crispin.

According to an AP report, a Buddhist monk who covered his face, placed a foot-long dagger at the throat of an AP reporter and asked him to hand over his camera. The photographer then handed over his memory card.

Crispin said that Ministry of Information authorities have claimed that news reporting on last year’s Buddhist-Muslim clashes in Arakan State incited racial hatred.

There is thus a risk that authorities will claim that uncensored news is contributing to instability and that there is a need to bring back censorship, he added.

“That’s what the Ministry of Information is already bidding to do with the new draft publishing law, which sets out various vague and arbitrary topics that newspapers and other print media will be barred from publishing. Unfettered news coverage of recent events in Meikhtila will likely give the law’s drafters more ammunition to impose these new forms of censorship,” said Crispin.

According to the state-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, a group of Buddhist, Christian and Muslim leaders known as the Interfaith Friendship Organization has also called on the government “to lay effective security plans and provide security to people of the two communities.”

The religious leaders also asked followers of different religions to obey the law and “maintain the community harmony with love and kindness.”