More signs of Myanmar’s toughening stance on media

Myanmar’s parliament yesterday voted against several constitutional amendments that keep the military’s veto power intact, dealing a blow to hopes for fuller democracy, according to the BBC. And outside the legislature authorities are accelerating the pace at which they undoing democratic reforms.

The media suffered two setbacks this week in what some journalists fear is an attempt to intimidate them ahead of elections later this year. First, the civilian inquest into the 2014 killing of a journalist ended without holding anyone to account. Second, the government began defamation proceedings against more than a dozen staff at a newspaper.  

A civil court inquiry into the death of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing ended on Tuesday, yielding no results eight months after he was shot and killed while in military custody, according to news reports. His widow, Ma Thandar, told journalists she planned to appeal to have the inquiry reopened.

Naing, also known as Par Gyi, had contributed news and photos to local publications such as Eleven Media, Yangon Times, and The Voice. Ma Thandar and her lawyer believe an autopsy revealed Naing’s body bore signs of torture, citing a crushed skull and broken jaw and teeth.

No military officials have been brought to account. Indeed, a military tribunal acquitted two soldiers charged in his death, The Irrawaddy reported last month.

In a separate development, the Ministry of Information filed a contempt of court complaint at the Mandalay Regional Court against the publisher and 16 editorial employees of Eleven Daily in connection with a March 21 report on criminal defamation proceedings that the same ministry brought against the paper, reports said. The complaint, filed by the ministry’s managing director of news and periodical enterprises, alleges that the report on his court testimony could prejudice the outcome of the case, news accounts said. 

In a briefing to journalists and media advocates, the paper’s chief editor maintained that the daily used the exact words from the official copy of the minister’s testimony and discussed how the judiciary had allegedly been “acting in a way that can be considered to be oppressive toward media.”

The full list of the employees named in the complaint is here. It is deeply troubling that authorities would commence legal action against so many journalists–a move that some journalists say is unprecedented in the country.

“This is the first time in newspaper history that such a large group of newspaper men were summoned to court,” Khin Maung Lay, a veteran journalist who was imprisoned several times by the military, told The Associated Press. “This is done with vengeance and it is a very bad precedent.”

These latest developments do little for Myanmar’s already dismal record on press freedom. CPJ documented at least 10 journalists imprisoned in the country in its annual prison census on December 1. The number of jailed journalists rose steadily after 14 were released in 2012 as part of a broader amnesty for political prisoners.

Last week, Amnesty International also accused Myanmar’s government of using threats, harassment, and imprisonment to intimidate the media ahead of national elections expected in early November. Myanmar’s restrictive media climate does not bode well for its already faltering democratic credentials.