Is media freedom under threat?

A series of high-profile cases against journalists and newspaper executives since 2011 have raised concern that media freedom remains almost as precarious as it was under junta rule.

By SITHU AUNG MYINT | FRONTIER

LATE LAST month, three reporters who had travelled to an area of Shan State controlled by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army were detained by the Tatmadaw and subsequently charged under Section 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act. They are being held in Hsipaw Prison and their trial is due to begin on July 11.

In Yangon, the trial continues of the chief editor of The Voice Daily, U Kyaw Min Swe, who was charged along with a columnist on June 2 under section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law after the Tatmadaw filed a complaint alleging that it was defamed by a satirical review of a propaganda film about its campaigns against armed ethnic groups.

Kyaw Min Swe has been repeatedly denied bail and is being held in Insein prison. Charges against the columnist, Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing, who writes under the pen name “British Ko Ko Maung”, were dismissed on June 16.

Meanwhile, the trial also continues of Eleven Media chief executive officer Dr Than Htut Aung, and chief editor Ko Wai Phyo, who were charged under 66(d) by the Yangon Region government last November and held in Insein prison until they were released on bail on January 6.

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The charges brought in these and other cases have raised alarm among journalists and watchdog groups within and outside Myanmar about the continued oppression of the media since the transition from military rule in 2011. They have also raised concerns over the apparent failure of the National League for Democracy to protect journalists from persecution and to uphold media freedom.

Arrested in Shan State on June 26 were Ko Lawi Weng, also known as Thein Zaw, a senior reporter with The Irrawaddy, and two reporters with DVB, Ko Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Bone Aung. They had travelled into the TNLA area to witness an event marking the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

The TNLA is a non-signatory of the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed by eight armed groups in October 2015. It has since been involved in fighting against the Tatmadaw as a member of the Northern Alliance, which also includes the Kachin Independence Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army. In December last year, the Shan State Hluttaw approved a resolution designating the Northern Alliance as a “terrorist” organisation following its joint offensive on Muse and other targets in northern Shan State the previous month.

The charging of the three journalists under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act raises questions about access to news sources in the interests of keeping the public informed. It would also seem to contradict the 2014 News Media Law. Section 7(a) of the law says that a news media worker who is seeking information in compliance with regulations set by relevant and responsible organisations in areas where there is war, conflict, riots or demonstrations shall “be exempt from being detained by a certain security related authority …”

A key issue in the case against the three journalists is whether their respective employer had applied in advance from a “relevant and responsible organisation” for permission to enter the TNLA area, as required under the News Media Law. U Zaw Htay, the President’s Office spokesperson, has said the trio would never have been charged had advance permission been obtained. A senior member of the NLD, U Win Htein, said their actions left them open to arrest under section 17(1). He also insisted that their prosecution would not represent a backsliding on media freedom.

In the case involving The Voice Daily and the Tatmadaw, the News Media Council had been trying a broker a resolution. The Tatmadaw’s stand was that if the newspaper printed an apology over the film review, which was published in late March, it would not take action. However, after the newspaper published an apology on May 14, the Tatmadaw filed its complaint under 66(d) on May 17.

The 66(d) case brought by the Yangon Region government, headed by Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, against Eleven Media CEO Than Htut Aung and chief editor Wai Pho involved a bribery allegation against an unnamed chief minister that was widely circulated online in Myanmar and throughout the region. Eleven Media issued an apology only after the case was underway. Because the allegation has not been substantiated, it should not be seen as an attack on media freedom.

The Tatmadaw has been vigorous in protecting its image and has not hesitated to take action if it believes it has been defamed. But it is taking action under the law and based on the decisions of the court, so it is difficult to say that it is oppressing the media.

Myanmar is not the only country where the media is facing challenges; there are issues in every country, to some extent. Whenever a journalist gets arrested or charged, the media should not automatically grumble that it is being oppressed. The media needs to continue to focus on gathering information for the sake of the people.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author. Read our recent editorial on press freedom here.

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