Argument

Some of the News That’s Fit to Print

Progress on media freedom is backsliding in Myanmar. Will Obama speak up to save his biggest foreign-policy success?

Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages
Photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages

When jailed Burmese journalist Aung Naing was shot dead last week in military detention, he became the first known human casualty of the Myanmar government’s escalating war on the press. Aung Naing, also known as Par Gyi, was arrested in Mon state in late September while covering clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups near the Thai-Myanmar border. Although accused by the government of working for a rebel faction, Aung Naing, according to colleagues and editors, was a freelance reporter for Yangon-based newspapers. (He was also a former bodyguard of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.) The military, which didn’t issue a statement on the killing until some three weeks after the fact, claims his death in custody occurred as Aung Naing tried to escape. Yet his body was buried with no autopsy, and there is no evidence to corroborate the military’s account of his killing.

Aung Naing’s death comes amid a series of alarming steps by the government of Myanmar to pull back on the transformational reforms that have brought the country back into good standing internationally over the last few years. Myanmar’s writers, journalists, and intellectuals rejoiced at the dramatic changes implemented beginning in 2011 after Than Shwe, the country’s 19-year strongman, stepped down. Than Shwe’s successor, President Thein Sein — a former military commander himself — ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including dozens of jailed journalists. He ended comprehensive pre-publication censorship, lifted a strict ban on criticism of the government, unblocked global platforms like YouTube, and called off intrusive government surveillance of journalists. Myanmar’s media sector became freer and more vibrant than it had been since before the junta took power in 1962, with 16 private daily newspapers publishing as of mid-2013. Alongside the prisoner releases, these measures helped convince the world that Thein Sein was a genuine reformer deserving of international praise and support.

Barack Obama’s administration has led the charge in trying to sustain the country’s promising but incomplete reform process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the first major Western official to visit newly opened Myanmar in November 2011. Soon after, the Obama administration eased sanctions, restored full diplomatic relations, and expanded aid with a nation that Washington sees as potentially pivotal to its own ambition of sustained U.S. influence in a fast-changing Asia. Scholars and experts both within and outside Myanmar give the United States some credit for a policy that combined pressure and engagement to help incentivize the Myanmar government’s breakthrough. In his May speech at West Point, Obama expressed pride in his role in shepherding a freer Myanmar, saying, "If Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot."

The first ever sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, Obama will make his second trip there in mid-November to attend the East Asia Summit and hold bilateral meetings. But what Colin Powell once called the Pottery Barn rule — "you break it, you own it" — has a corollary for foreign-policy successes: "You claim it, you own it." By touting America’s role in Myanmar’s transition and associating himself personally with the effort by rewarding Naypyidaw with high-level visits, Obama now bears a measure of accountability to ensure that the promise of Myanmar’s transition isn’t squandered. With Iraq and Libya now stricken off the administration’s dwindling list of foreign-policy achievements, the claimed win in Myanmar takes on outsized importance.

Alongside concerns about ongoing civil war involving ethnic and political factions and the repression of the Muslim minority Rohingya population, encroachments on press freedom are another disturbing reminder that Myanmar’s historic transition from dictatorship to democracy could still slide backward. While the issues surrounding ethnic reconciliation are complex and politically fraught, invoking deep-seated ethnic hatreds and a power struggle pitting the government’s drive for centralization versus ethnic groups’ quest for autonomy, the press freedom issues are very straightforward: Democracies do not arrest, jail, or kill journalists as punishment for what they report.

President Thein Sein pays lip service to the value of a free press, referring to the media as his country’s "fourth estate" in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 2012. He has allowed reporting on some controversial issues, including a violent police crackdown on protests at a Chinese-owned copper mine in late 2012. Western journalists have been able to cover Myanmar far more freely, including highly sensitive topics such as the repression of the Rohingya.

Yet it is increasingly clear that Thein Sein’s openness has sharp limits that have everything to do with whether particular coverage is considered palatable — or threatening — to the government. In July, four Burmese journalists and their boss, a newspaper CEO, were each sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor for supposedly divulging "state secrets" when their newspaper reported that a military production plant was being used to make chemical weapons, a claim the Myanmar government has denied. Their employer, the Unity Journal, was bankrupted by the cost of their legal defense.

This month, another three journalists and two publishers were sentenced to two years in prison by a court in Yangon after printing an article in July that erroneously reported that Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders were forming a new interim government. The publication’s office was raided, its computers and documents seized, and its operations ordered to close. Other journalists have been prosecuted for exposing corruption in the legal system and in government ministries. In early April, several of Myanmar’s newspapers printed black pages to protest the conviction of a journalist for "disturbing a public servant" after he allegedly trespassed on government property and attempted to interview an Education Ministry bureaucrat about a Japanese-funded scholarship program.

At first there was hope that the strong-arm tactics were the work of an unreconstructed old guard in the judiciary and Information Ministry. Yet this spring, Thein Sein made his intentions clear, stating in a speech that "if media freedoms are used to endanger state security rather than give benefits to the country, I want to announce that effective action will be taken under existing laws."

The repression goes beyond individual cases — government press policies have also been moving in a worrisome direction. While media registration requirements have been liberalized substantially since the rule of the junta, the government still controls who can publish and can withdraw licenses for publications that "insult" a religion or provoke "for the purpose of deteriorating the rule of law." Over the last six weeks, two minority-focused publications in ethnic languages were forced to shut down on grounds that they could not publish without government permission. The Ministry of Information has also tightened visa requirements for foreign journalists, forcing them to repeatedly exit and enter the country on separate trips every two to four weeks. Making matters worse, the government also generously subsidizes its own media mouthpieces, making it difficult for independent outlets to compete.

In retrospect, Thein Sein’s early embrace of media freedom seems to have been calculated to win favor in the eyes of the West as he sought to reintegrate Myanmar into rest of the world. Now that he has experienced the criticism and unflattering coverage that are inherent to a free media sector, he’s apparently having second thoughts.

A year from now Myanmar will hold its first post-reform election, a crucial litmus test of whether the country is transitioning to genuine democracy. As the ruling party, composed primarily of former military officials, angles to maintain control, their tolerance for hard-hitting coverage is likely to decline further still. Yet the absence of an open and freewheeling campaign and public debate on Myanmar’s future will undercut the credibility of the election results. While Myanmar’s press corps has repeatedly taken to the streets in protest against overbearing restrictions and the targeting of individual journalists, Myanmar’s political opposition has been more muted. At a press freedom conference in March, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi spoke elliptically of media freedom, saying that while a free press is essential to a free society, "this press has to be aware not just of its great power and influence, but of the great responsibility that it bears for the building of a new nation that is centered on the will of the people." If Myanmar’s journalists are to hold on to the taste of freedom they have briefly enjoyed, they will need outside support.

These days it is possible to argue that virtually any position or action the United States takes around the world might backfire, yielding as much or more opposition or resistance than it does results. Yet U.S. engagement in Myanmar has evoked strikingly little of the resentment and sense of intrusion witnessed in the Middle East and elsewhere. A delegation to Myanmar by the Center for Strategic and International Studies this summer found that amid Myanmar’s many internal divisions, stakeholders were united in wanting robust American engagement. So if Myanmar is indeed one of the few places left that will tolerate something akin to a lecture from the United States, Obama should not squander the opportunity. No stranger to the pains and perils of a wily press corps, Obama should deliver a firm message to Thein Sein that the targeting of journalists must stop — and convey that continued U.S. support for the transition must be met with a commitment by Naypyidaw to live up to its obligations when it comes to press freedom.

Because of Obama’s obvious pride in his own government’s policy toward Myanmar, the country’s transition is the subject of heightened scrutiny among a skeptical Washington press corps. If Obama does not stand up for the right of Myanmar’s press to criticize Thein Sein’s government, he’ll invite media criticism of his own back home.

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