On April 11, several Myanmar newspapers and journals blacked-out their front pages to protest the jailing of journalists by the national government.
The Myanmar Journalist Network says five journalists are currently detained in Myanmar, despite the government’s commitment to further expand media freedom in the country.
The protest was organized right after a multimedia reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an independent online publication, was sentenced by a local court to one year in prison for trespassing on government property and disrupting the work of a government official. The case involved Zaw Pe, a reporter covering a Japanese-funded scholarship program in 2012. He was accused of trespassing after attempting to visit and take footage at an office of the national Department of Education in central Myanmar during office hours.
In an interview with Irawaddy.com, DVB bureau chief Toe Zaw Latt called the sentence “outrageous”:
He was taking the video recording during office hours. It’s outrageous that he is being sentenced for trespassing…We have to question the degree of press freedom in the country.
These are not good signs for press freedom, if journalists have to face a lawsuit for covering news during office hours. We are worried that these actions might be a sign of restrictions in press freedom again, as it was in the past.
Phoe Thauk Kyar, chief editor of New Golden Land daily, asserted that a media interview must not be seen by officials as disruptive or criminal:
This is totally unfair. Asking a question alone does not amount to disruption of officials. This shows that the government wants to oppress the media.
Ye Myint Pe, chief editor of the daily Standard Time, worried that the “unfair“ verdict would set a bad precedent for those working in the media sector:
This unfair [arrest] [sets] a bad precedent for the media. Media practitioners should be prepared. The order of the law becomes disorder. Suppression and unfairness are still going on. The grass roots suffer the most from this.
Thein Nyunt, a Member of Parliament, lamented that the issue would affect the image of media practitioners:
The sentencing of those reporters should be done only after consulting with the Press Council at a time when the drawing up of media by-laws is in progress. I would like to say that this can tarnish the image of media and media practitioners at a time when the fourth estate is playing an important role in the democratic transition.
The law he was citing was recently introduced by the government as part of Myanmar’s transition to democracy. But for The Irrawaddy, the jailing of reporters on spurious charges could only mean that the country has reverted to the “dark days of media freedom.”
President Thein Sein’s promise to lift censorship and uphold press freedom rings hollow. Reforms in Burma have stalled, if not reversed. We call on the government to immediately free all reporters in custody.
Before Zaw Pe, Eleven Media reporter Ma Khine was sentenced to jail for three months last December for trespassing and use of abusive language in connection to an investigative story about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, the CEO and four reporters of the weekly Unity Journal are still in prison and have been refused bail after being accused of violating the Official Secrets Act (a colonial-era law) in the course of investigating claims of secret chemical weapons production by the military.
Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, joined Myanmar media groups in calling for the release of detained reporters:
It is unacceptable that local officials can obstruct a journalist’s work and have him sentenced to imprisonment just because they feel he disturbed them. We call on the local authorities to release Zaw Phay and we ask the government to ensure that media freedom is respected equally everywhere, without differences between Rangoon and the rest of the country.
Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists warned the Myanmar government that the good will it established through the democratic reforms it has been implementing since 2011 is slowly being eroded:
Today's conviction of journalist Zaw Pe is the latest indication that Burma's once-promising democratic reform program is rapidly being reversed.
Zaw Pe's conviction appears emblematic of broader resistance among public officials to respect the rights of media workers. At a recent public forum, Deputy Information Minister and presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut lambasted Associated Press journalists for their coverage of ethnic tensions in the Rakhine State. AP reported that dozens of Muslims were killed as a result of the violence.
The issue concerning Associated Press is that they were … reporting without verifying with the government…So even if you look at the AP code of conduct, there is very strict criteria about using these kinds of unverified processes; so they are breaking their own principles about using the news sources.
Time allowances on visas for foreign media workers have been limited in the months since the incident.
In an editorial, Eleven Media summarized the state of media freedom in Myanmar:
Currently Myanmar journalists have to practice the self-censorship by themselves although they no longer need to submit their works for censorship before publishing. A reporter may go to jail anytime for his or her reporting. There are too many laws that authorities can use to control the freedom of expression. There is such a big law as The Burma Official Secrets Act and others which can send journalists to jail with many crimes such as defamation, trespassing, use of offensive language and disturbance to officials. But there are hardly any laws to protect the freedom of expression for the journalists.