On World Press Freedom Day 2018, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Myanmar government to end its assault on press freedom, which has intensified under the leadership of the National League for Democracy. Since coming to power in 2016, the NLD-led government has used repressive laws to arrest, prosecute and imprison journalists, failing to live up to its promises to reform a flawed and dated legislative framework. In particular, those reporting on human rights violations by government authorities have been singled out in retributive criminal cases brought under laws previously used by the country’s military rulers to suppress dissent. Urgent action is needed to reverse this trend and ensure an environment in which journalists can report freely and without fear of retaliation.
Two Reuters reporters will spend World Press Freedom Day behind bars in Myanmar because of their efforts to investigate a massacre of Rohingya men by Myanmar Army soldiers. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on 12 December 2017 after receiving official government documents from police officers in a poorly staged effort to frame the two men. If convicted, they face up to 14 years’ imprisonment under the draconian Official Secrets Act. On 29 April, a senior police official stated that a police whistle-blower, who gave courtroom testimony exposing the sting operation, had himself been imprisoned for unspecified violations of a police disciplinary code.
The case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo has garnered international attention, in part because it has exposed the NLD-government’s brazen disregard for press freedom and the rule of law. However, the case constitutes one example of a broader pattern of attacks on press freedom under the NLD’s leadership, which includes the following cases:
- On 25 June 2016, the Myanmar Army filed a case under Article 131 of the Penal Code, concerning the abetment of “mutiny”, against a journalist and editor of the 7 Day Daily after the newspaper published an article quoting a former general urging soldiers to cooperate with the civilian government. The case was dropped after the newspaper apologised for the article.
- On 10 November 2016, the Yangon regional government filed charges under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law against Eleven Myanmar chief executive Than Htut Aung and chief editor Wai Phyo, after the paper reported on alleged government corruption. The two were held in prison for two months before being released on bail, and the charges were later dropped.
- On 24 December 2016, two Kachin men, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng, were arrested after assisting journalists reporting on an attack by the Myanmar Army on a local church. On 27 October 2017, the two men were convicted. Dumdaw Nawng Lat was sentenced to four years and three months imprisonment under the Unlawful Associations Act, Import/Export Act and Article 500 of the Penal Code, concerning defamation. Langjaw Gam Seng was sentenced to two years and three months imprisonment under the first two laws. Both men were released in a presidential amnesty on 17 April 2018.
- On 7 March 2017, a supporter of ultra-nationalist monk Wirathu filed charges against Myanmar Now Editor Swe Win under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law after he shared an article critical of the monk on his Facebook page. Swe Win was arrested and briefly detained while attempting to travel abroad in July 2017. The criminal proceedings against Swe Win are ongoing. Additional charges under the Penal Code, initiated after Swe Win made public remarks critical of Wirathu while answering questions about the first case, were subsequently dismissed by the court.
- On 2 June 2017, chief editor of The Voice Daily newspaper Kyaw Min Swe and columnist Kyaw Zwa Naing were arrested under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and Article 25(b) of the Media Law, after military officials filed charges in relation to a satirical article on the military’s role in the peace process. Kyaw Zwa Naing was acquitted of the Article 66(d) charges in June, and the military withdrew all charges against the men in September.
- On 26 June 2017, journalists Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy, and Aye Naing and Pyae Bone Naing of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), were detained alongside four others after reporting on a drug-burning ceremony in a Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)-controlled area of Shan State. The three were held incommunicado before being transferred to police custody on 28 June and charged under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act. In September, the military withdrew the charges and the three were released from prison.
- On 27 October 2017, journalist and translator Aung Naing Soe, foreign reporters Lau Hon Meng and Mok Choy Lin, and driver Hla Tin were detained and charged under an obscure colonial era Anti-Aircraft Act in relation to the use of a drone in Naypyidaw, the capital. They were sentenced to two months in prison under the law and were released on 29 December 2017.
The routine judicial harassment of journalists on the NLD’s watch has stunted the development of the media sector during Myanmar’s supposed democratic transition. Journalists clearly understand the potential consequences of drawing attention to government misconduct or reporting on sensitive issues.
Those trying to report on war and ethnic conflict in the country face particularly grave threats. The government has sought to suppress reporting on the violence directed at the Rohingya population. Authorities have denied journalists access to conflict-affected areas in Rakhine State, except as part of highly choreographed trips organized by government officials. In an attempt to undermine independent media reports on the conflict, government officials have engaged in a deliberate campaign of misinformation and have referred to reports of human rights violations as “fake news”.
Myanmar’s legislative framework provides authorities with a broad range of provisions to censor speech and target journalists reporting on sensitive matters. The Telecommunications Law was enacted under the previous government, but continues to be utilized as a tool for censoring online speech by journalists and other social media users. Since the NLD came to power, more than 100 individuals, including at least 18 journalists, have been charged under Article 66(d) of the law.
Repressive colonial-era laws, including the Unlawful Associations Act and the Official Secrets Act, as well as various Penal Code provisions, remain on the books and are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. The News Media Law, Printing and Publishing Law and Broadcasting Law likewise fall short of international standards and require reform to ensure an independent, effective and empowered media sector.
Instead of taking steps to reform repressive laws and enable independent reporting, the NLD government appears ready to use all the tools at its disposal to shield itself from criticism and stifle reporting on violent conflict and human rights concerns in the country.
A free and independent press is a cornerstone of democratic governance and plays an essential role in identifying and remedying human rights violations. ARTICLE 19 calls on the Myanmar government to open a new chapter on press freedom by undertaking comprehensive legislative reform and promoting an environment in which journalists can carry out their work without fear of reprisal.