Burmese media freedom reforms show signs of retreat, claim critics

Burma among 10 worst countries for jailing journalists, says report

 

In Rangoon, the ending of 50 years of strict censorship in 2012 has given rise to a burgeoning media sector in Burma.

No longer are just state-run newspapers for sale but new outlets have been allowed to open up and those which were previously banned and operating in exile have returned.

However, while Burma’s media sector has been transformed, there have been worrying signals that some of the freedoms allowed to the media are being rowed back.

According a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, press conditions have deteriorated and it ranks Burma among the 10 worst countries in the world for jailing journalists. Currently at least 10 journalists are in prison, all on anti-state charges.

According to the committee’s report, “rather than reforming draconian and outdated security laws, President Thein Sein’s government is using the laws to imprison journalists”.

In July last year, five staff members of the Unity weekly news journal were sentenced to 10 years under the official secrets act for publishing a report about an alleged weapons factory. In October, the owner, publisher and three journalists of the Bi Mon Te Nay journal were sentenced to two years after reporting a story based on a false statement by an activist group that claimed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic political leaders had formed an interim government.

Journal in exile

Kyaw Zwa Moe, managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, says that four years ago it was banned and its staff were working in exile in Chang Mai, Thailand. It is important to recognise “the turning point” for the media landscape in Burma, he says, but he warns that “the government doesn’t really want to give freedom to the media 100 per cent yet”.

In March last year, the government implemented a media law which it said was aimed at protecting freedom of speech, but instead many commentators say it has been used to clamp down on outlets that criticise the government.

Under the media law, the Myanmar Herald is being sued for defamation by the ministry of information for printing an interview with a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party that was critical of the president.

“I said the president does not keep his promise and he changes his words again and again.” says Myo Yan Naung Thein of the NLD, a director of the Bayda Institute, a political training school, who was interviewed. “The strange thing is that the whole team of the Myanmar Herald is sued; it means they want to destroy the whole journal.”

Kyaw Zwa Moe believes it is because of the general election, likely to be held later this year, that the government is tightening its grip on the media and worries the election will not be free and fair. “I think we will face more restrictions and obstacles intentionally imposed by the government,” he says.

This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

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