As people in Myanmar go to the polls later this year, a free press will be more important than ever to inform the public about the choices they face. But writing headlines in Myanmar is still a risky business – and can even land you in jail.
Earlier this year, two editors from the Myanmar Post Weekly got a taste of this when a story angered the country’s military. Based on an interview with Major Thein Zaw, a member of parliament and a military official, the article’s headline implied that the major had made comments about his parliamentary colleagues’ level of education. The two editors – Than Htike Thu and San Moe Tun – were both handed two-month jail terms for “defamation.”
It was an outrageous sentence that clearly violated their right to freedom of expression – no one should have to serve jail time for an innocuous headline. Sadly, their case is just the tip of the iceberg.
As Amnesty International shows in a new briefing, the past two years in Myanmar have been marked by an intensifying crackdown on media freedom and free speech. Authorities are increasingly harassing, threatening and throwing journalists into prison to silence “inconvenient” coverage.
For sure, Myanmar’s media scene has changed for the better since wide-ranging reforms announced in 2011. Gone are the days when only a handful of outlets existed, which all had to submit to rigid pre-publication state censorship. Today, a range of broadcast, online and print outlets exist, covering subjects previously strictly off-limits, such as human rights or the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy.
However, these new found freedoms have limits. Authorities continue to use both old and new methods to suppress media freedom, relying on a range of draconian laws to target individuals or outlets whose reporting the government or military don’t like.
Courageous journalists put their own security and liberty at risk as they test the boundaries. Today, at least 10 media workers languish behind bars simply for their reporting, all of them jailed in 2014. Amnesty International considers them all to be prisoners of conscience who must be immediately and unconditionally released.
The threat of imprisonment has led to widespread self-censorship. Journalists are well aware of the “red lines” they cannot cross – chief among these, as the Myanmar Post Weekly case illustrates, are stories critical of the army. Over and over again, journalists we interviewed told us that they would shy away from covering the military, since they knew what the consequences could be.
Most media workers and journalists Amnesty International spoke with asked for anonymity, citing fear of imprisonment. The emblematic case of the “Unity 5” has proved a chilling deterrence. Five journalists from the Unity newspaper are currently each serving seven years in prison with hard labour after publishing a story on an alleged military-run chemical weapons factory. They were sentenced for “disclosing state secrets” after a manifestly unfair trial.
On this year’s World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, Myanmar’s military even issued a statement threatening to prosecute anyone who carried quotes from one of the country’s ethnic armed groups. The irony was probably lost on the army’s top brass.
Apart from those jailed, countless other media workers have been threatened or intimidated when carrying out their work. During the student-led protests earlier this year, many reporters on the scene said they were threatened by authorities, or photographed by plainclothes police officers.
In a worrying new development, extremist Buddhist nationalist groups – which have become more and more prominent over the past years – are also targeting media workers, in particular those who report on the oppressed Muslim Rohingya minority. One journalist told us that when she was covering riots involving Muslim and Buddhist mobs in July 2014, some men wearing Buddhist monk robes had shouted: “No more questions. Beat them up! Smash their heads.”
All of this is creating a climate of fear for journalists, which is particularly disturbing as Myanmar fast approaches national elections scheduled for November. Around elections, an independent media can provide the public with information and analysis and serve as a platform for open discussion.
The assault on press freedom must end. Myanmar’s authorities must stop paying lip service to human rights and take genuine action – all journalists jailed for their peaceful work must be freed, and attempts to silence the media must end immediately.
It is equally crucial that the international community does not stand by watching silently from the sidelines. Engaging with Myanmar does not mean turning a blind eye to human rights violations – other governments should speak out for those who have been silenced and demand an end to the crackdown on press freedom.
Change must start now, before even more media workers are thrown into jail or forced into silence.
Rupert Abbott is Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia Research Director.