Obama: Burma must improve its media environment

November 7, 2014 9:39 AM ET

November 7, 2014

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461

Dear President Obama,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express its deep concern about the recent killing, jailing, and harassment of journalists in Burma. During your upcoming visit to the country on November 11-12, we urge you to impress upon Burmese President Thein Sein that future U.S. engagement will be predicated on a renewed and genuine commitment to press freedom.

Press conditions in Burma have deteriorated rapidly in recent months. We are deeply troubled by the army's killing of Burmese freelance journalist Kyaw Aung Naing while he was in military custody--the first death of a journalist in Burma in seven years. No soldier has been held responsible for Naing's killing, and it is not clear why the army waited nearly three weeks to announce his death. News reports indicate that his wife, Than Dar, was harassed by police and soldiers while filing formal murder charges. Reports also suggest that the journalist was tortured before he was killed.

We are similarly concerned by the fast rising number of journalists being imprisoned on anti-state charges for their news reporting. Burma's courts have handed down prison sentences to 10 journalists this year, nine of whom are now languishing behind bars. Four journalists from the local Unity news journal each face seven years in prison with hard labor for an investigative report on a secretive military facility in the country's Magwe region. They were sentenced under the colonial-era 1923 Official Secrets Act. Five journalists with the local Bi Mon Te Nay newspaper were detained in July under the 1950 Emergency Provision Act for quoting an activist group that falsely claimed the Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition had formed an interim government; they were each sentenced to two years in prison for defamation of the state.

Rather than reforming draconian and outdated security laws that curb press freedom, Thein Sein's government is increasingly using the laws to threaten and suppress journalists.

Mr. President, your administration's decision to suspend the economic and financial sanctions imposed on Burma's previous military junta was presented as a diplomatic reward for Thein Sein's stated commitment to democratic reforms. Those reforms, implemented largely in 2012, included an end to the previous junta's censorship regime, the release of jailed journalists, and a vow to implement laws that uphold, rather than curb, a free press.

As Thein Sein's government now backtracks on those commitments, we urge your government to consider reinstating economic and financial sanctions and freezing bilateral commercial, diplomatic and strategic initiatives, including military-to-military exchanges. We urge you to use U.S. influence to see that justice is served for slain journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, all jailed journalists are released unconditionally, and sweeping legal reforms that protect the press are implemented.

Only then will Burma's democratic reforms merit the reward of enhanced bilateral relations with the United States.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director



CC List:

Thein Sein, President, Union of Burma

Ye Htut, Minister of Information

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander in Chief, Burma Armed Forces

Kyaw Min Swe, Secretary, Interim Press Council of Burma

Kyaw Myo Htut, Ambassador of Burma to the United States, Washington, D.C.

Derek Mitchell, U.S. Ambassador to Burma

Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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