Myanmar obstructs reporters from covering crisis in Rakhine State

Bangkok, November 3, 2016–Security officials in Myanmar should stop obstructing and harassing journalists attempting to report on the conflict in the country’s northern Rakhine State, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The censorship comes amid widespread allegations of military abuses, including allegations of sexual violence, perpetrated as part of an intensified counterinsurgency campaign along the country’s border with Bangladesh.

Border guards and military officers in mid-October blocked journalists and photographers from several news organizations, including The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Times, Democratic Voice of Burma, and 7 Day Daily, from traveling north of the state’s Kyikanpyin police station to areas in the Maungdaw Township, where joint military-police security operations are underway, according to an October 21 news report from the independent newspaper The Irrawaddy.

Security officials told reporters they could not travel to the area because it was unsafe for journalists, the same report said. Military officials also ordered journalists to delete photographs they had taken of the aftermath of an October 9 attack on a border guard post that killed five police. The reporters refused to comply and drove back from the military checkpoint, declining to tell officers their names or the media outlets that employ them, the report said.

“Myanmar’s democratically elected government should assert civilian control over its security forces and command senior officers to allow journalists to freely and safely report on the evolving crisis in Rakhine State,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The best way to prove or disprove allegations of rights abuses is to allow independent media to probe the accusations. If the government truly has nothing to hide, then there is no need to restrict media access to the areas in question in northern Rakhine State.”

Nongovernmental organizations, rights groups, and international media have all alleged that soldiers have committed rights abuses in security sweeps, including alleged arbitrary arrests, killings of unarmed civilians, arson, and the mass rape of women in blockaded areas of Maungdaw Township, news reports said. Reuters reported that “dozens of Rohingya Muslim women” had been raped or sexually assaulted by soldiers, based on interviews it conducted with victims and rights groups.

Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay has denied the reports, claiming the allegations are part of an insurgent “disinformation campaign.”

Journalists who have probed the mass rape allegations have come under official fire. Fiona MacGregor, an investigative editor at the independent Myanmar Times, was singled out by Zaw Htay for being biased against the government and in favor of local Muslims soon after she reported, on October 27, allegations made by a local rights group that claimed security forces raped around 30 ethnic-Rohingya women in a single village on October 19.

The presidential spokesman also reposted comments made on social media by former minister of information Ye Htut calling for a police investigation into MacGregor and her newspaper’s reporting on the allegations. MacGregor told CPJ she believed Zaw Htay sought to stifle reporting on the allegations.

On Monday, the Myanmar Times managers fired MacGregor for breaching company policy against damaging national reconciliation and damaging the paper’s reputation by publishing the article alleging the mass rape of ethnic-Rohingya women and other opinion and analysis articles she had recently written about military and government actions in Rakhine State, MacGregor told CPJ.

Douglas Long, editor of The Myanmar Times, told CPJ by email that MacGregor was fired for violating employee obligations outlined in the company’s handbook related to complying “with all reasonable and lawful instructions, policies, procedures and legal requirements.” Long wrote, “The extent of direct government pressure [on the paper to fire MacGregor], if any, is unclear.”