Burma Backslides on Freedom of the Press

As far as Burma’s leaders are concerned, the media is still enemy number one.

By Wai Moe
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In August 2012, the Burmese government announced that it was abolishing the system of censorship that had been in place, more or less uninterrupted, for the previous half century. The period since then has witnessed a remarkable flowering of expression. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets have proliferated, and journalists have subjected hitherto taboo topics to close public scrutiny.

Over the past few months, however, the tide seems to be turning for Burma’s newly self-assertive press. Reporters are complaining of growing pressure from the authorities. Journalists are landing in jail or facing lawsuits from disgruntled officials. Earlier this week, the human rights organization Amnesty International published a report that describes a “climate of fear” that was leading many members of the media to exercise “self-censorship” rather than face reprisals for reporting on sensitive topics.

The reason for the deteriorating climate is clear. This upcoming November Burma’s citizens will be taking part in their first national election since the country’s leaders embarked on a cautious democratization process four years ago. Officials are clearly spooked. As Amnesty notes in its report, the Burmese authorities are “intensifying restrictions on media as the country approaches crucial national elections” by “using threats, harassment and imprisonment to stifle independent journalists and outlets.”

Consider the latest evidence of escalating tensions between government and the press. On May 27, the Burmese Parliament announced that it was expelling journalists from the media room overlooking the chamber of the assembly. Kyaw Soe, the director-general of the parliament, said that reporters would only be permitted to follow parliamentary debates via a TV screen in the corridor outside of the chamber.

The measures were intended as official retribution for some deeply unflattering coverage. Reporters had published video of members of parliament sleeping during official sessions. Several of those caught in the act were military officers — people apparently accustomed to more deferential treatment in a country that has endured decades of harsh military rule. The journalists also caught representatives of the military leaning over to press voting buttons for their absent comrades — a clear violation of parliamentary protocol.

“It’s very obvious that military MPs cheated in parliamentary votes. Anyone who breaks the voting rules should be punished,” said Myint Kyaw, Secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network. “There’s nothing wrong with the media. Our responsibility is to let people know what happens in the country, including the parliament. Our job is to provide for transparency and accountability.” Parliamentary officials apparently don’t agree. Just to add insult to injury, they declared that they would no longer provide journalists with advance copies of the legislative schedule, leaving them in the dark.

Reporters have been feeling the heat for some time now. Over the past few months, the authorities have thrown 12 journalists in jail, of whom 10 remain imprisoned. Five were sentenced on national security charges after reporting on a secret military factory, while another five were jailed for “defaming the state” after publishing false reports about domestic politics. Some have received jail sentences of up to ten years, including hard labor.

In October of last year, freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing was detained and killed by government troops while he was covering fighting between the Burmese army and a rebel group in Mon State, in the south of the country. “Even though the censorship board was abolished in September 2012, it would seem that reporting about the military is still a highly sensitive topic in Burma,” said Myint Kyaw.

The government in Naypyidaw also exerts pressure on journalist through lawsuits. Late last year Burma’s Ministry of Information sued two of the leading independent media companies in the country after they published reports on official corruption.

According to Eleven Media, one of the companies named in the suit, the Burmese government subsequently launched a fresh lawsuit against them earlier this month for the offense of — wait for it — reporting on the trial against them. “The Ministry of Information named all 17 members of our editorial staff in the suit,” said Nay Htun Naing, an executive editor at the company. “The government is clearly trying to squeeze freedom of press in the country ahead of the elections in November.”

The current crackdown makes for a stark contrast with 2012, when the government allowed a parliamentary by-election that resulted in a dramatic victory for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). But that election, as dramatic as it was, allowed merely a handful of opposition representatives to enter parliament, a largely symbolic measure that had little effect on the real balance of power in the assembly. Even so, the NLD’s landslide victory brought home to the once-omnipotent generals the potential political influence of an unleashed press: they were shocked by their failure to influence the results, even at a time when the censorship board was still officially in existence. This time around the stakes are much higher, and the country’s still-entrenched political establishment is clearly unwilling to leave matters to chance.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Burma itself may have changed, but the mindsets of many of the people at the top have not. Those who ruled the country for so long still clearly tend to view the media reflexively as “enemies of the state.” Speaking anonymously, a well-connected government official involved in the ongoing peace talks with ethnic rebels said that many government officials view the uncensored media as “far too critical and pessimistic” for their taste. For many members of the current administration, he said, “the media are enemy number one.”

Photo credit: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Wai Moe is a former Burmese political prisoner turned journalist. He has worked for the Irrawaddy and, since 2012, as a stringer for the New York Times.