Hopes for greater press freedom when Myanmar moved to quasi-democratic rule were quickly quashed with the jailing in 2017 of two Reuters reporters. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have their freedom again, but journalists and press freedom activists who met with CPJ’s Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin in Yangon in June said that their critical reporting, including from conflict zones, is often met with lawsuits, arrest warrants, and censorship.
When Myanmar soldiers shot and killed five people in Rakhine State’s Buthidaung Township on March 21, The Irrawaddy was on the scene to report. Witnesses claimed 200 soldiers surrounded the township’s Say Taung village and indiscriminately fired on homes. The victims, witnesses quoted in The Irrawaddy said, were found with bullet wounds to their heads and torsos.
Myanmar’s military took offense to The Irrawaddy’s reporting, with a spokesperson saying that the armed assault was aimed at Arakan Army insurgents, not civilians, and that media coverage, including by The Irrawaddy, had not been fair. In April, the military filed a criminal online defamation complaint against Ye Ni, The Irrawaddy’s Burmese-language editor, over the website’s coverage of the conflict. If convicted under the Telecommunication Law’s Section 66(d), the editor faces a possible two-year jail sentence.
“To be honest, I’m willing to go to prison if they wish,” Ye Ni told CPJ at The Irrawaddy’s Yangon bureau, adding that he would fight any charges in court rather than flee, despite widespread concerns that he would not receive a fair trial. “I take full responsibility for what we published.”
The charges against Ye Ni are emblematic of Myanmar’s deteriorating press freedom environment. Reporters, editors and advocates told CPJ in June that authorities are ramping up legal threats to stifle independent reporting, particularly on the military’s campaigns against insurgent groups in volatile ethnic minority areas, including the Arakan Army, an armed group fighting for ethnic Rakhine autonomy and self-determination.
The legal threats, the journalists said, have intensified in the wake of the Rohingya refugee crisis, where Myanmar’s military stands accused by the United Nations and rights groups of “ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent” for its forced expulsion of over 700,000 of the Muslim minority group into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017.
That harassment was in full global view with the incarceration and subsequent conviction of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on trumped-up charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters were jailed for over 500 days before being released in May under a presidential amnesty.
Witness testimony in their court proceedings showed not only that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were the victims of a police set-up, it also exposed deep flaws in Myanmar’s politicized judiciary and the arbitrariness with which authorities use anti-state laws to threaten journalists and suppress expression.
The saga underscored the rising resignation of local journalists who had hoped that the country’s transition from military to democratic rule in 2016 under de facto leader and former pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi would usher in a bold era of press freedom.
Suu Kyi’s defense of the charges against the Reuters duo, expressed in media interviews and her unwillingness to intervene, sent a clear message to all media that there are limits to what can and cannot be reported under her rule, journalists, editors and advocates told CPJ.
“They don’t look at the media as an enemy of the state, like the previous military regime,” said Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English-language edition, about Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)-led elected government. “But they don’t see us as a friend either.”
The former political prisoner said that The Irrawaddy sent letters to Suu Kyi to inform her of three separate legal threats that authorities have recently filed against the outlet’s journalists, but has not yet received her reply.
As one of Myanmar’s most respected public figures, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a long-time political prisoner who once bravely resisted against abusive military rule, Suu Kyi’s stand with the armed forces on the Reuters case negatively influenced public perceptions about the media and its role, the same sources said.
“Suu Kyi’s comments that nobody is above the law [in the Reuters case] has made people suspicious of journalists,” said Ye Naing Moe, director of the Yangon Journalism School, an independent training outfit. “Under the military’s censorship, the people respected journalists. Now that’s changed. It’s a completely new landscape.”
CPJ sent a request for comment to the office of Information Minister Pe Myint, but did not immediately receive a response.
That shift in perceptions has emboldened authorities to intensify their use of security-related laws to suppress rather than protect the press. That’s despite the passage of a media law in 2014 that broadly guaranteed media freedom, including prohibitions on censorship and the jailing of journalists for their reporting.
The landmark law also established the quasi-independent Myanmar Press Council with a mandate to mediate media-related conflicts before they reach court. However, the military has consistently refused to engage with the council, including in the pending criminal defamation accusation against Ye Ni, journalists and activists told CPJ.
Thiha Saw, the council’s former head, told CPJ the body’s general ineffectiveness can be chalked up to a late Ministry of Information tweak to a clause in the law that said media disputes “may” rather than “must” go through the council before being taken to court. “It’s made all the difference,” he said.
He said that mooted reforms to laws used to repress journalists, including the Official Secrets Act, Telecommunication Law’s Section 66(d), and various criminal defamation provisions, have stalled under Suu Kyi due to obstruction from holdover military elements still embedded in the bureaucracy.
Local press freedom activists said they believe Suu Kyi and her NLD, despite a strong electoral mandate to implement democratizing reforms, are equally part of the problem.
“Suu Kyi doesn’t have the political motivation for media freedom,” said Yin Yadanar Thein, executive director of the local advocacy group, Free Expression Myanmar, noting that free media would, among other things, expose her failing national peace process, her government’s signature policy initiative. “She didn’t promise press freedom, and she hasn’t delivered it.”
Suu Kyi’s State Counsellor’s Office did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment. CPJ’s calls to the office’s spokesman, Zaw Htay, were not picked up.
Authorities have long used the threat of charges under Myanmar’s outdated laws, including the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, to curb independent reporting on the activities of ethnic armed groups and the military’s often controversial and abusive counterinsurgency operations in remote areas of the conflict-ridden nation.
In May, Aung Marm Oo, founder and editor-in-chief of the privately-run Development Media Group, a Rakhine-based independent news outlet, went into hiding after authorities filed a complaint seeking his arrest under the act. Convictions under the anti-state provision carry five-year prison sentences.
Police have interrogated his wife, mother, and employees based in Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe, and later extended their sweeps to his brother’s apartment in Yangon, from where Aung Marm Oo narrowly escaped arrest, the journalist told CPJ by email.
Although authorities did not immediately indicate which news report motivated the legal complaint, Aung Marm Oo said that based on the questions police asked his family and colleagues, he suspects it is related to reporting on the Arakan Army conflict.
“I can’t even imagine my personal security in the hands of the Special Branch police or army personnel if I get arrested,” Aung Marm Oo said. “I don’t trust the legal system and judiciary at all because it is under total control of the [military-controlled] Home Affairs Ministry and army.”
He said the Reuters case showed that the judiciary lacks independent power and authority to rule on cases according to standard legal procedures and precedents. “The judges and lawyers have to be afraid of the army,” he said.
His media group, as with others, has been impeded by a government directive handed down in June, and still in place by late July, to suspend internet services for security reasons in areas of Rakhine and Chin states, where the Arakan Army conflict has intensified.
The order, made by the Ministry of Transport and Communications to local telecom operators, covers a restive region where journalists and international aid and humanitarian workers have already been barred access.
Aung Marm Oo told CPJ the lack of internet connectivity has made it difficult for his local undercover reporters to send and receive photos and videos from the conflict-affected areas, forcing them to travel out of the area to file their reports. That, he says, has hidden the extent of an emerging humanitarian crisis as civilians flee intensifying rebel-government fighting.
Meanwhile, journalists who have fought politicized criminal charges in court have been bogged down in time-consuming and expensive legal proceedings that have hampered their ability to continue reporting.
Swe Win, editor and co-founder of Myanmar Now, a Yangon-based news website of six staff reporters, was accused under Section 66(d) of defaming Wirathu, an ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk whose xenophobic views of minority Muslims have supported the military’s harsh crackdown on the Rohingya.
One of Wirathu’s adherents filed the charges in March 2017 after Swe Win quoted a monk who suggested that Buddhist authorities should defrock the hardline religious leader. The quote was in response to Wirathu’s comments that commended the January 2017 murder of Ko Ni, a high-profile Muslim lawyer, legal adviser to Suu Kyi’s government, and established opponent of military rule.
Because the defamation charges were filed in the central city of Mandalay, near Wirathu’s monastery, Swe Win was required to travel 400 miles from Yangon every two weeks to attend two days of hearings, where he says plaintiff witnesses, including Wirathu, consistently failed to appear in court.
If Swe Win–a political prisoner held for seven years during military rule on national security-related charges–did not appear in court, he would have been jailed for violating his bail terms, he told CPJ. After appearing in court 71 times over a two-year period, the charges and case against Swe Win were dropped in July.
Swe Win told CPJ in June, before the case was dismissed, that the threat of additional defamation charges had impacted his news group’s ability and willingness to report on sensitive topics, including the conflict in Rakhine state.
“We have to take extreme caution when reporting on the military and their supporting nationalists,” Swe Win said. “We haven’t stopped reporting, but we feel very insecure that something will happen…Another lawsuit would be a deadly blow to our work, actually. Everybody is scared in my newsroom.”
The country’s few licensed independent TV news broadcasters are not immune to the intimidation, threats and shifting public perceptions about the media’s role and integrity.
The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), previously an exile-run outfit based in Norway and Thailand that was renowned for its undercover reporting during military rule, has gradually established a presence in Myanmar and is now a fully licensed digital broadcaster.
In a roundtable discussion with CPJ, DVB editors said the military’s portrayal of the Reuters journalists as traitors and Suu Kyi’s stand on the military’s side in the case has adversely impacted their news group’s ability to freely and safely report the news.
In particular, they said, villagers are now reluctant to speak on-camera with their reporters due to new mistrust of journalists as well as fear of reprisals, including possible charges under Section 66(d) or the Unlawful Associations Act, for criticizing the military on air. As a result, they said, DVB reporters still disguise themselves when reporting from restricted areas, including in Rakhine State.
“When Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, she said the first priority is national reconciliation,” said DVB editor-in-chief and founder Aye Chan Naing. “So don’t say any bad things about the army, don’t dig around, that will destroy reconciliation.
“So basically the government is saying it doesn’t have tolerance for a free media, that the country isn’t ready for press freedom. It’s the same line the junta used to say about democracy. They’re doing the same thing as the army in the past.”
Aye Chan Naing and other DVB editors reluctantly acknowledged this has resulted in a measure of self-censorship, not least because the news group’s broadcasting license must be renewed every two years by the Ministry of Information.
“There is a clause in our contract that says if you make a mistake you get a star, a second mistake two stars, and the third time, your license will be removed,” Aye Chan Naing said, noting that DVB has not been warned over its reporting since receiving its license over a year ago. “But those stars still hang over our heads.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog has been updated to correct the name of the Development Media Group and to clarify that Swe Win is a co-founder of Myanmar Now.]