When lawyer U Maung Maung Win visited three journalists in jail in northeast Myanmar last month, one of the first questions they asked him was how the media was covering their case in the news.
The journalists hadn’t read a single story. It wasn’t that stories weren’t being written — but all newspapers that were handed to them from the guards had big squares cut out of the pages. Any stories about their case were removed.
Less than ten years ago, censorship was a common tactic used under the military regime: student protests, worker’s strikes, or any pro-democracy uprising were blacked out in the press.
What is shocking is that now, under the current democratically elected government, journalists are still facing intimidation, threats, and restrictions from reporting in certain areas in the country, creating black spots of information.
“Myanmar is fast approaching the bottom of the press-freedom barrel,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of the human rights defenders group Fortify Rights. “The authorities are cracking down on those who expose the truth. It’s crass, ugly, and right out of the authoritarian toolkit.”
The three journalists — Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung from Democratic Voice of Burma and Lawi Weng from The Irrawaddy news outlet — were arrested last month when they were traveling back from a drug burning ceremony held by the ethnic armed group Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). It was an average day spent reporting and taking photos of the annual event to mark the United Nations international day against drug addiction. But the police detained them and three other passengers of their vehicle, holding them incommunicado for two days.
They were charged under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, which Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch describes as a “catch all” charge.
The colonial-era law says anyone who “is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association or in any way assists the operations of any such association,” faces prosecution for up to three years.
“These charges are absurd… the Unlawful Association Act is the thing that the government and the military of Myanmar use against anyone in an ethnic area that they consider to oppose the government,” said Robertson.
Under the previous military government, exiled media groups such as Democratic Voice of Burma and The Irrawaddy were very careful about taking steps to protect their journalists against repercussions for critical reports of the government. Many reports were filed anonymously or under pseudonyms. More than a year since Aung San Suu Kyi’s the National League of Democracy (NLD) was elected, hopes that press freedom would improve are waning.
“We never expected to be getting arrested without making mistakes,” said Aye Chan, director of Democratic Voice of Burma, commenting on the case which involves two of his journalists. “They were simply doing their job.”
Alarming Rise in Number of Journalists Detained
The number of journalists arrested while doing their job has risen to five since June.
Journalist Kyaw Min Swe, from local paper The Voice, was arrested last month after he published a satirical article that mocked a military propaganda film.
He was sentenced for violating section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law and he could face up to three years’ imprisonment for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence, or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.”
Sixty Myanmar and international organizations called on the Myanmar authorities to repeal section 66(d) in June, but so far the government has only made minor changes that the media and human rights groups say don’t go far enough.
“What we’re seeing now is a crackdown on journalists. Parliament should repeal the legal framework used to target the legitimate work of journalists and put an end to this crackdown,” said Smith, commenting on the changing in the wording of the law and amendments to make the offenses bailable.
The Cost of a Facebook Post
One of the cases that was a tipping point for public outrage was the re-arrest of journalist Swe Win two weeks ago.
Swe Win earned recognition in the community for exposing the story of two domestic maids who were tortured and kept in slave-like conditions in a tailor shop, which had gone unreported for years. For breaking the story he was awarded the President’s Certificate of Honor.
But a few months later he was charged with “online defamation” under Article 66(d) for a Facebook post stating the extremist monk U Wirathu should be de-robed after he praised the killers of renowned Muslim lawyer Ko Ni, who was an adviser to the NLD government.
The military tends to be some of the most sensitive Facebook users online, with many officers pressing charges against bloggers, journalists, and members of the general public. Many everyday citizens have been charged with online defamation for posting on Facebook.
Another alarming fact is most charges go unnoticed.
At least 38 cases of defamation were recorded last year, compared to seven from 2013 to 2015 under the previous military regime. One case involved a young woman who shared a post deemed to be insulting against State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi has so far stayed quiet on the arrests.
Journalists Plagued by Colonial Era Laws
The recent spike in arrests of journalists has driven 150 local journalists to form the Myanmar Committee for the Protection of Journalists (MCPJ). They’ve started an armband campaign calling for press freedom and are collecting signatures for their petition to abolish Article 66(d) and other colonial era laws used to imprison journalists.
“The current situation is bad, very, very, bad. Especially the army, the Tadmadaw, declare war on the media… they treat the media like the enemy and they respond in aggression,” Hline Thint Zin Wai, spokesperson for the newly formed committee, told The Diplomat.
Tired of the intimidation, they have also turned the tables and attempted to press charges against a military soldier under the Citizen’s Privacy and Security Law. The soldier continues to follow journalists, take photos and videos of them. He has allegedly particularly targeted MCPJ members. However, so far the police have rejected their application.
But Hline Thint Zin Wai said they won’t give up: “It is very important not just for journalists but also for the people [of Myanmar] to report on real stories and the real situation. That’s why without freedom of press there is no democracy, no justice.”
Calls for Myanmar’s Laws to Meet International Standards
The problem, according to Amnesty International’s Asia representative, Laura Haigh, is that in Myanmar online defamation falls under criminal law, which is at odds with international standards. Currently, “Myanmar’s laws are like a textbook in repression,” Haigh said, listing laws ranging from 66(d) to section 505(b) for “exciting people against the state.”
“I think what has been really disappointing is some aspects are hard for them [the NLD government] to change, but law reform is something they can do — they have the majority in parliament,” said Haigh.
“The leaders have to realize experiencing daily criticism is part of democracy,” she added.
What has raised eyebrows is that the government is engaged in peace talks with ethnic armed groups such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which the three journalists spoke to last month before they were arrested.
U Thiha Saw, one of the directors at Myanmar Journalism School, pointed out the irony. “Even ‘the lady’ Aung San Suu Kyi, she met with the TNLA — but when journalists took some photos in TNLA territory they are violating the Unlawful Associations Act? It is very vague and very subjective.”
Robertson added that this case sends a worrying message to those reporting on human rights abuses or military impunity from conflict areas: “The fact that the government is relying on a colonial era law passed down the British to try and force people to stay away from ethnic groups that the government doesn’t like — it’s a metastasizing cancer on media freedom and freedom of expression.”
Uncertain Future for Young Journalists
Sitting in the middle of a classroom lined with orange chairs U Thiha Saw explained his worries for the next generation of journalists.
“Stories about journalists being arrested or detained have an impact on trainees and for trainers too,” he said. “The trainers are worried and are asking ourselves will there be less students in the next intake in September because their parents are telling them this is a dangerous profession?”
For press freedom to really improve, U Thiha Saw explained, restrictions on the press need to be lifted. He pointed to the lack of access for independent press to visit areas such as northern Rakhine State, where there have been a number of skirmishes, killings, and violence.
Another growing pressure is self-censorship among journalists, Haigh said. “Journalists are trying to work out where is the line and to what extent should I say or report on that [critical news].”
Hline Thint Zin Wai disagreed that the number of arrested journalists will discourage young journalists. Instead he believes the wrongful imprisonment of journalists will act as a driving force for young people to take up the profession to make a difference. “This time is revolution time for the media, to fight for the freedom of the press,” he argued.
Speaking outside the court, the youngest of the three handcuffed journalists, Pyae Phone Aung, stated simply, “No matter which government comes into power, we journalists will continue doing our job as journalists.”
Libby Hogan is a journalist based in Yangon, Myanmar.