Threats, arrests, and access denied as Myanmar backtracks on press freedom

By Shawn W. Crispin/CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative on February 12, 2018 2:07 PM

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Esther Htusan is no longer safe to report from her home country, Myanmar. The Associated Press reporter fled the country late last year after being threatened for her critical reporting on various topics that authorities deem sensitive, from the ethnic Rohingya refugee exodus, the military's controversial counterinsurgency operations in Rakhine State, to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's handling of the crisis.

Htusan came under heavy official fire in November after the government perceived she misrepresented a Suu Kyi speech that addressed issues of illegal immigration, terrorism, and global stability. Amid a furor, a prominent Suu Kyi supporter made a death threat against Htusan on his personal Facebook page, which had over 300,000 followers at the time, Associated Press reporters, who are familiar with the case but who requested anonymity, told CPJ.

Before that, an unidentified man followed her home one evening, shouting her name from the darkness in front of her apartment in downtown Yangon. Htusan left Myanmar for Thailand in December due to fears for her security. In recent days, the journalists with whom CPJ spoke said, men who they believe to be plainclothes police visited her apartment building in Yangon and queried neighbors about her whereabouts.

"She's not going back [to Myanmar] any time soon," one of the reporters said.

Myanmar's media, both local and foreign, are under heavy assault as security measures used to suppress the press under military rule are reactivated under Suu Kyi's quasi-democratic regime, several journalists who cover the country told CPJ. It marks a dramatic reversal in recent press freedom gains and augurs ill for the country's delicate transition from military to elected rule.

Authorities are increasingly abusing various draconian colonial and military era laws to repress reporting on a widening range of topics. Many journalists and activists had hoped the laws would be amended or scrapped when Suu Kyi came to power with a strong electoral mandate to push democratic change through liberal reforms.

Nowhere is that backsliding more apparent than in the continued pretrial detention of local Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were charged under the colonial era Official Secrets Act. The two journalists were arrested on December 12 in Yangon after receiving documents from police that authorities said after their arrest were secret.

Reuters said in a recent special report, "Massacre in Myanmar," that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo's arrests were more likely prompted by their investigative reporting on a mass killing of Rohingya men by Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops at the Rakhine State village of Inn Din on September 2.

In response to international news reports on the mass grave, Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing acknowledged last month that his troops and villagers were behind the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims, whose bodies were found in a mass grave at Inn Din, according to news reports.

President Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi have both defended the Reuters reporters' pre-trial detentions, underscoring the notion that Suu Kyi's elected government and the powerful autonomous military now see eye-to-eye on the perceived need to roll back earlier allowances for media freedoms and actively suppress news that casts the government and military in a bad light.

Earlier press freedom concerns center on charges filed against journalists and others under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, a broad and vague provision that allows for two-year prison sentences for online defamation. Many reporters were held for long periods in pre-trial detention while investigations and court proceedings were ongoing, CPJ research shows.

Research by Free Expression Myanmar, a local nongovernmental organization, shows that prosecutions under the law had a 100 percent conviction rate in the period spanning 2016-17. CPJ is aware of several journalists now face pending charges under the draconian provision, which has been used both by Suu Kyi's elected government and the autonomous military to silence and intimidate critics.

But many sensed a wider crackdown was underway when three local journalists--Thein Zaw with The Irrawaddy, and Aye Nai and Pyae Phong Aung at the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB)--were arrested and detained on June 26 in the country's northeastern Shan State. All three were held on charges under the 1908 Unlawful Association Act, a provision used against journalists during military rule to discourage reporting on the nation's various ethnic armed conflicts.

The Myanmar military dropped the charges and the three reporters were released on September 1, but an intimidating precedent was set. "I am sure every journalist feels discouraged and unsafe since last year, when our reporter and DVB reporters were arrested by the military," said Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy's English-language edition. "The arrest of the Reuters journalists has only made the situation worse."

The government's repressive focus now is on censoring coverage of western Rakhine State, from where over 680,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled military violence into neighboring Bangladesh since August 25 last year. Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgent attacks on security force outposts that day set the cycle of violence in motion.

The government has strictly barred reporters from the state's northern reaches--apart from a handful of tightly stage-managed press tours--in the name of security. Most of the reporting on the allegations of rape, summary executions and other abuses has been sourced through refugee and victim interviews in camps in Bangladesh.

Myanmar's government has denied nearly all the allegations, including recent reports of the discovery of mass graves in northern Rakhine State. Most recently, authorities denied an AP report of five mass graves that the news agency had identified through interviews with survivors and time-stamped cellphone videos.

Authorities have threatened, but not yet filed, charges over the report and demanded the news agency issue a correction and apology.

Local journalists who try to cover Rakhine State's murky ethnic politics and conflicts are often the ones who are terrorized. Kyaw Lin, a local reporter who runs a news service known as Roma Time, was stabbed twice in the back by an unknown assailant while riding on a motorcycle in Rakhine's Sittwe township on December 20.

After spending five days in a Sittwe hospital to treat severe wounds that caused blood-clotting, he moved to Yangon due to fears for safety, he told CPJ. Over a month later, Kyaw Lin says that authorities have made only token efforts to apprehend his assailants, who he believes were linked to ethnic Rakhine nationalists wanting to silence his reporting on the illegal drug trade.

Kyaw Lin said he continues to receive threats on his telephone and social media, with one anonymous Facebook poster recently writing, "You may live this time but won't next time." With those threats, he now keeps a low profile in Yangon and said he does not intend to return to Rakhine, where he has a wife and young child, in the foreseeable future. "We [journalists] are living in a dark time," he told CPJ.

The situation is also deteriorating for foreign reporters and their local sources. Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based reporter who was on a government blacklist for nearly 30 years during military rule, told CPJ he was trailed and surveilled by Special Branch police during a reporting trip to the country in late December.

In northern Kachin state, where the government continues to fight against ethnic insurgents, authorities took Lintner's picture and later questioned one of his news sources about their meeting. The officials also interrogated the driver of a UNHCR official whom Lintner interviewed, he said. Lintner said it was the first time since he resumed reporting from the country in 2013 that he was overtly followed by officials.

"They're trying to intimidate local people against speaking to foreign reporters," said Lintner, who said that for the first time since 2013, he was required by Suu Kyi's Foreign Ministry to provide a detailed itinerary and list of proposed interviewees and news topics before receiving a media visa. Previously, media visas were administered solely by the Ministry of Information.

Other foreign journalists told CPJ that they have faced difficulties renewing and receiving media visas, prompting some to report under pseudonyms to avoid possible denial of their applications over critical reporting. Kayleigh Long, a freelance reporter who contributes to various international outlets, told CPJ she recently decided to quit the country altogether rather than put her fixers and contacts at risk.

"The stakes for the local people who help us do our jobs is high--I never want to be responsible for a fixer or driver being jailed, but that's unfortunately being seen as a higher possibility these days," said Long, who recently moved from Yangon to Bangkok. "To me, being based there is no longer worth it."

[Reporting from Bangkok]