Reuters arrests a damning reflection on the state of Myanmar's democratic transition

These are dark days for journalism in Myanmar.

LET’S BE CLEAR: The detention of Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo is a brazen attack on the media and the principles of democracy.

This is not about national security. This is about protecting the interests of the Tatmadaw and silencing those who do not blindly repeat the official line.

However, this line – that security forces have not been involved in abuses in northern Rakhine – has already been widely discredited: by satellite imagery, by accounts of refugees, by physical evidence of abuses and even by journalists who visited Rakhine on a state-sponsored trip.

The military’s investigation claimed that security forces acted with restraint in Rakhine State in the aftermath of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks. Presumably, then, any top-secret documents from police in Rakhine State would only reinforce this finding.

There is nothing particularly unusual about journalists in Myanmar receiving and possessing confidential documents. Many security, government and parliamentary records are marked as such.

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But the military’s handling of the Reuters case – to hold them at an undisclosed location for (at the time of writing) nearly a week, and to deny them access to relatives and legal representation – suggests these are no ordinary files.

The military will have known that the arrests would cause a global outcry and drawn protests from those within the industry. It has made a calculated decision that this opprobrium matters less than suppressing the documents and sending a warning to other journalists. It’s worth asking why.

The military will also have considered two other factors. The first is that the National League for Democracy would not object, both to preserve its relationship with the military and because it does not see any need to defend attacks on media freedom. The second is that many people in Myanmar will swallow the national security line.

Anyone who has seen the discussion on social media over the past week will know that many people support the military’s actions in relation to the Reuters case. Balancing national security and transparency is indeed a vexed issue, one that every country grapples with, and the leaking of confidential material is nearly always a crime. But in most genuine democracies, a line is drawn between the whistleblower and the recipient of that leak. Sadly, this has been lost in the “debate”, which has mostly consisted of denouncing the journalists as traitors.

The NLD, meanwhile, has not just been silent; it has been complicit. It has helped the military to sell a narrative in which the Reuters journalists are common criminals – even agents of foreign interests – rather than journalists just doing their job properly by seeking out documentary evidence.

And this is probably the most dispiriting part of this sad story: independent journalism in Myanmar has so few advocates today.

Those in power have fostered a narrative under which journalists are spoilers and troublemakers who create instability. We are less a necessary feature of democracy than a danger to it.

Decades of conditioning and propaganda coupled with recent events in Rakhine have created fertile ground for this argument to take root. In addition to the government restrictions and pressure, the rise of Facebook and Myanmar’s general economic malaise are also placing publications and media organisations under increasing financial strain.

As a result, independent media is facing an uncertain future. Journalists and media organisations need to do a better job at explaining why they matter. The direction of Myanmar’s transition depends on it. It’s not inconceivable that in a few years state media will once again dominate the landscape. There are already precious few checks on the power of the military, government and big businesses. Losing the vibrant media that has built up in recent years would be incredibly damaging for the development of democracy.

That is a debate for another day, though. For now, the priority must be to ensure that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are returned to civilian custody from their illegal detention. They should be freed without charge.

Those who have been fortunate enough to work with these two young men know they are dedicated to their profession and to revealing the truth. That they could be prosecuted for this is a damning reflection on the state of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.

This editorial appears in the December 21 issue of Frontier. 

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