We journalists are under attack. Press freedom is in jeopardy in Myanmar.
The last act of aggression happened on Monday when the military arrested The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Lawi Weng and two Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporters, Aye Nai and Pyae Bone Naing, also known as Pyae Phone Aung.
Now the military has charged them as having violated Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act as they ventured into territory controlled by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, as part of a reporting trip.
The arrest and charges demonstrate that either Myanmar’s military leaders don’t understand the nature and purpose of the media, or that this was a deliberate act intended to frighten journalists away from covering sensitive issues that could lead to criticism of the armed forces.
If the military arrested Lawi Weng and two DVB reporters due to what they describe as a connection to ethnic armed rebels, they would have to arrest hundreds of journalists who work for independent media across the country.
I am sure that nearly all Myanmar journalists have made contact at least once with members of “unlawful” ethnic armed groups, as all publications across the country have covered the peace process—one of the most important issues facing the nation.
Heads of key institutions, including the army and those within the current government, must understand that journalists need to talk to people from all sides of a conflict in order to verify facts, to be able to provide accurate information, and to interpret complex situations and perspectives. If we were to not do this, we would be failing to provide comprehensive information to the public.
Since 2011, when ex-President Thein Sein took office and his administration started negotiations with ethnic armed organizations, we journalists also started covering issues concerning conflict more openly. We approached it with a sense of responsibility to help end seven decades of civil war.
Journalists from many publications in the country have traveled to conflict zones, including areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, to speak with rebel leaders, their soldiers, ethnic civil society groups, residents, and refugees.
We have repeatedly interviewed and had conversations with leaders and members of such groups whenever the previous and incumbent governments held meetings or conferences relating to peace and conflict in Naypyidaw, Yangon and elsewhere.
Over the past years, ethnic armed group leaders have flown to the capital or to Yangon from their headquarters to attend talks organized by both ex-President U Thein Sein’s administration and the current Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led administration. The most significant event was the Union Peace Conference, also known as the 21st Century Panglong, held by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
A number of rebel leaders attended the conference and made speeches alongside the State Counselor and the commander-in-chief of the military.
The most recent media arrests by the military are damaging press freedom, a principle that is considered a pillar of the democracy that we are trying to create. In fact, the arrests are limiting greater freedoms that have been realized since the lifting of draconian censorship laws by military-backed ex-President U Thein Sein in 2012.
These days, I tend to say to international guests and journalists that Myanmar is not an enemy of the press, as it was under the military regimes of past decades. But the situation seems to be headed backward.
While the military appears to be solely responsible for the arrest of Lawi Weng and the DVB reporters, the government holds responsibility, too.
We understand that the powerful Myanmar Army did not need approval or a green light from the State Counselor or the President or the National League for Democracy government in order to arrest those journalists. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Htin Kyaw are the two highest leaders in the country. I believe that they both are responsible for ensuring the protection of citizens’ basic and professional rights, particularly when these rights are abused or mishandled by a powerful institution like the military.
Lawi Weng has been working for The Irrawaddy since 2007. He was a journalist doing his job, as were Aye Nai and Pyae Bone Naing. Since their arrest on Monday, I have sent three letters to the State Counselor, the President and the Minister of Information concerning Lawi’s detention. I have requested that they assist us in finding a way to release him, as he and the other reporters were simply doing their duties as journalists, gathering information in a sensitive area.
To be honest, I do not know if either the President or the State Counselor can help out in this matter. But at the very least, I am sure that they can raise the issue with Myanmar’s top military leaders.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Htin Kyaw, the military can be held accountable by your government: they have to answer your questions.
The arrest of these journalists is damaging the norms of democracy you’ve promised to achieve under your government. The charges they are facing are an attack on press freedom, which is essential to rebuilding and restoring peace to Myanmar.
As state leaders, you are responsible for securing our professional rights to do our job for our country. Please do not let us down.