Guest Column

Silencing Media Has No Place in A Democracy

By Bidhayak Das 31 July 2017

During my 15 years as a journalist, I never thought I could be arrested for meeting insurgent groups. Now I have been out of the industry for just as long, I dread to think about going through the same ordeal as Lawi Weng from The Irrawaddy and U Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Phyo Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The situation in Northeast India, where I spent most of my journalism years, is not too different from the situation in Myanmar. Journalists like Lawi Weng, U Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Phyo Naing who cover conflict from the field are exposed to hazards completely different from those working from the newsroom. Conflict journalists often find themselves sandwiched between state and non-state forces and there is almost zero guarantee of staying out of harm’s way.

In this, the state has a huge responsibility. It has to protect members of “the fourth estate” which forms a very important pillar of any democratic society. This protection is perhaps the only difference between journalists on the Indian side of the border—who cover an equally intense and complicated conflict between ethnic groups and the military—and those that do so in Myanmar. I don’t remember any incident of significance concerning the arrest of a journalist for covering or contacting an insurgent group in India. Undoubtedly, we were constantly tracked by intelligence agencies, the police, and the military special branch, and at times we were interrogated. But that was about it.

Northeast India, which shares a 1,643-kilometer border with Myanmar, has been “on the boil” for several decades with over a hundred different insurgent groups operating in the area at one point in time. Many of the armed outfits used Myanmar, Bangladesh, and even Bhutan as safe havens for their groups. Hundreds of journalists have been covering conflict in the region and many have traveled to unthinkable places to interview leaders of banned organizations such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC).

I clearly remember the day when I and another colleague were driven along the Bangladesh border by a driver from a militant group from Meghalaya—one of the insurgency-affected states of Northeast India. I was afraid that it may not be entirely ethical on our part, but I knew that given the situation and our poor knowledge of the terrain that this was the best thing to do. We had interviewed both the state security agencies and the non-state armed groups. Our reporting was done and we could have trekked back, but that we would be taking great risks, one of which was being arrested or detained by border guards and having to negotiate a complicated process to get ourselves released.

The prospect of temporary detention or interrogation we faced comes nowhere close to what the three journalists in Myanmar have had to go through. Their arrest apart, the way they have been treated and put in chains conjures scary images of the iron-fisted regime that ruled Myanmar for decades.

Even if the journalists somehow made a mistake, the response from the state has been appalling to say the least. Firstly, you don’t arrest journalists by applying a somewhat draconian colonial-era law (the Unlawful Associations Act) and secondly, you don’t treat them like criminals for simply doing their job, as I, and any number of others, have done in our professional careers as reporters.

Looking over the different provisions of the law, one wonders which aspect applies to the trio. It could be the part which states “whoever is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association or in any way assists the operations of any such association, shall be punished….” Alternatively, it could be provisions that state “whoever manages or assists in the management of an unlawful association, or promotes or assists in promoting a meeting of any such association, or of any members thereof as such members, shall be punished….”

The million-dollar question is how do these two statements apply to Lawi Weng and the other two journalists? They don’t come close to having committed any of what the law prescribes as violations. They were merely at the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) camp to cover a drugs-burning event. I have covered a few similar events also hosted by banned “terrorist organizations” (under Section 35 of India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967). Did I commit a crime? No. Did I avoid trouble because the Indian state is more careful in how it deals with its media personnel? Or is it a case of an older, established democracy versus a state merely trying to pose as one.

The fact of the matter is that on November 8, 2015 Myanmar held open and seemingly credible elections for the first time in decades under the watchful eyes of national and international election observers and the international community at large. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was elected to create a civilian government in a landslide victory. The government now has a reasonable amount of power both inside and outside of Parliament to counter undemocratic acts by the military or other forces.

The challenge, perhaps, is that in a fledgling democracy there will always be those that continue to hold on to the past and remain objectionable to anything that threatens the status quo. It is definitely time to ask State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi what is the use of a democracy where supporters who have backed her through her struggles are punished on flimsy grounds? Is this the kind of democracy she wants the country to accept as it moves towards the 2020 elections? The answer, for now at least, is perhaps anyone’s guess.

Bidhayak Das is a former journalist who has spent over a decade working on promoting democracy in Myanmar. He is currently working as an independent consultant on elections, media and communications.