The Irrawaddy

Press Freedom Faces Serious Setbacks in Myanmar

The verdict in the case of two Reuters reporters accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act was on Monday postponed until Sept. 3 because the judge overseeing the case was sick, a court official said.

But we must be loud and clear in sending a message that truth and justice cannot be postponed. In searching for the truth, the two reporters, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, were just doing their job and did not commit any crime.

After the brief hearing, diplomats and journalists who had gathered at the court to hear the verdict were gratified when Ko Wa Lone told them: “We are not afraid or shaken. The truth is on our side. Whatever the situation is, we will not be shaken. They cannot make us weak.”

He is right.

Many have been disappointed by the poor treatment of the press by the elected government of the de facto national leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The administration has kept local and independent media at arm’s length, choosing to speak only to international news outlets on occasion. President U Win Myint has yet to hold a press briefing or meet with any media outlets in Myanmar.

Last year, much to the chagrin of her own supporters, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told Japanese broadcaster NHK that the two reporters “were arrested because they broke the Official Secrets Act.”

She added, “We cannot say now whether they were guilty or not. That will be up to the judiciary.”

The state counselor was herself locked up several times following unlawful trials staged by kangaroo courts – some sentences and extensions of her house arrest were simply meted out in her own lakeside residence, where she herself was held prisoner for decades. If she believes Myanmar’s judiciary is independent and should be transparent and accountable, the two reporters should be released immediately.

It is being said with increasing frequency that Myanmar, after making a promising start at change, is now going back to the bad old days and that we are living in challenging times for journalists. As in earlier times, a climate of fear is spreading among the press. It should be said, however, that we are aware we have not yet returned to the conditions seen under Senior General Than Shwe or spymaster General Khin Nyunt.

Nonetheless, the image of the government has been seriously tarnished on many fronts, including maintaining law and order and stability, and keeping its promises of change and allowing the fourth estate to flourish.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was once known for standing up to the repressive military regime of the past; many had hoped that a government under her leadership would allow greater press freedom in Myanmar, but in reality the opposite has occurred.

Myanmar’s reformist former President U Thein Sein eased media restrictions, scrapped the censorship board and lifted bans on exiled media and websites, including The Irrawaddy. We were allowed to operate inside the country from 2012; alarmingly, the media space we were granted then has been curtailed and press freedom has since deteriorated.

Self-censorship has replaced the notorious press censorship that was active under the military regime. We also face a serious challenge from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is under the direct control of the armed forces and is not media friendly. To the contrary, it takes a hard line against journalists and the media.

On Sept. 3 we hope the judge will attend the session and end this drama by reading out a verdict that frees the two reporters. They deserve an official apology.