Press Freedom and the Invisible Line

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 15 December 2017

Do we have press freedom in Myanmar? Yes, we do, but with an invisible line. No one can know where that line is because it’s unseen. When you touch or cross it, you’re finished.

Two journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, crossed that line, and they found themselves in custody on Tuesday.

Police charged the pair of Reuters reporters under the Official Secrets Act because they possessed leaked internal security reports related to fighting between border guard forces and a Muslim militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in August. If found guilty, they could face up to 14 years in prison.

Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, enacted in 1923 under British colonial rule, is just one among many elements of the invisible line being used against the press and its practitioners.

The invisible line is now a threat to press freedom — a staple of democracy — just as the draconian censorship mechanism was under the former military regime.

In 2017 alone, 11 journalists from different publications were arrested after running critical and satirical stories about military and government officials. They crossed the invisible line.

They were charged with different laws, including Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, the Aircraft Act and now the Official Secrets Act. The previous administration used other laws, such as Article 502 of the Penal Code for defamation and Article 131 for abetting mutiny or attempting to seduce military officers and soldiers.

The prosecutors ranged from police officers to high-ranking military and government officials and nationalists. Their victims include journalists from different publications such as The Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, Myanmar Now, The Voice, 7Days and Reuters.

Judging from the pattern, many more laws could be added to the invisible line whenever prosecutors feel the need to extend it. That is, the line can be moved to reach any journalist if needed, especially when someone in power feels annoyed with their reporting.

Back in September, when the military withdrew its cases against six journalists and two activists, clearing the way for the journalists’ release, we felt as though the press environment might be improving.

I personally hoped there would be no ugly cases like those again.

But the arrest of the two Reuters journalists on Tuesday signaled that Myanmar is still an unsafe environment for journalists to do their job – even simply to gather information.

Worse, the cases happened with a democratic government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is power.

In 2015, the NLD clearly stated in its election manifesto: “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.”

It’s a shame for the NLD government to have let nearly a dozen journalists be arrested — less than two years after coming to power. We haven’t seen any tangible attempt by the NLD government to stop such attacks against the media, which has played an important role in the country’s transition from military rule.

We are eager to find out how democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government will respond.

For now, we feel more vulnerable in doing our job professionally and properly than we did under military rule. In those days, with pre-censorship in place, we knew if we were crossing the line. The worst-case scenario was that our story would be scrapped by the then-censorship board.

This is the reality that we Myanmar journalists are facing in doing our job. The question now is whether the democratic government is truly aware of the risks journalists are facing and interested in getting rid of that invisible line.