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Weekly Highlights: Journalists and Freedom of Speech Under Threat in Burma

January 10, 2014

Irrawaddy-Journalist-Protest-Sai-ZawPresident Thein Sein’s government has been applauded for its lifting of censorship and granting of greater media freedom than the country has seen in decades. However, recent arrests and defamation cases against media workers and public figures are telling of the Burma government’s true stance on freedom of speech.

The end of 2013 saw the first imprisonment of a reporter, Ma Khine from Eleven Media, who was indicted for trespassing, defamation and use of abusive language in an alleged video piracy case. Following Ma Khine’s indictment, six Unity journal staff were arrested in January under Official Secrets Act for a report on a possible chemical weapons factory on military grounds in Pauk Township, Magway Region. In the same month, Associated Press journalists were called into the Ministry of Information and criticized for their reporting on the violence that occurred in Du Char Yar Tan village located in Arakan State.

International rights groups and press councils have called for the immediate and unconditional release of the six Unity journal staff who have been detained on allegations of leaking state secrets. The authorities have claimed that the report was “baseless” and rejected its findings. The government has a long history of using the claim of national security to justify its violent actions. In keeping with its repressive laws, these recent arrests underline the urgent need for meaningful media reforms that can promote transparency, accountability and enc ourage press freedom to take genuine root in Burma.

The media laws currently being amended also need to include changes that factor in the advertisement industry. Although regime mouthpieces, The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror, have pledged their reform, their advertising policies remain restrictive. Both newspapers were accused this week of removing language and references to politically sensitive issues such as corruption and human rights. In a country where freedom of press still ranks 169 out of 179 according to Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, it is crucial to engage the public in dissemina ting free and diverse information in all aspects of the media rather than to promote censorship.

Also this week, Member of Parliament Shwe Maung was called in for questioning by the Home Affairs Ministry for defaming the police about the fire that occurred in Du Char Yar Tan village, Arakan State’s Maungdaw Township several weeks after the massacre of Rohingya in the same area. The allegation that Shwe Maung’s comments are provoking tensions between communities illustrates a dangerous double standard when the government fails to take actions on hate speech made by extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu and leaders of the 969 movement that have incited violence against Muslims throughout the country. Yet there is an urgent need to protect and promote freedom of expression under international laws such as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Politi cal Rights and to decriminalize defamation by not penalizing citizens with jail terms and fines. Criminalizing dissenting voices against Burma’s government through the use of laws such as Official Secrets Act and Sections 499 and 500 of the Penal Code for defamation only stifles freedom of expression.

In addition, the unwillingness to allow dialogue and the denial of access to the affected areas in the northern regions of Arakan State show a lack of transparency and pose major challenges to bringing about real change in Burma. The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission concluded its inquiry into the Du Char Yar Tan village killings, noting it has not found any evidence of massacre. Free reporting and freedom of information is vital to a burgeoning democracy. An independent international investigation into the matter with full access to information – as recommended by the UN and the US and British embassies – will guarantee accountability for human rights abuses.

The government should reaffirm its commitment to freedom of information and take concrete steps to draft laws that meet international standards. While Burma’s new Media Bill struggles to pass through the Parliament, laws that threaten journalists into self-censorship, such as Sections 499 and 500 of the Penal Code and the Printers and Publishers Registration Law of 1962, must also be reviewed to guarantee real protection of journalists.

It is imperative that the government allows dialogue and debate to rebuild harmony in communities and promote national reconciliation through these discussions. As Burma makes its transition towards democracy, it must learn from its past mistakes and create mechanisms to prevent intimidation and arrests of people exercising their fundamental rights including freedom of speech. Reform must include the repeal of repressive media laws from previous regimes and amendment of new laws and regulations such as the 2013 Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law to guarantee the rights and protection of reporters, editors and all those striving to create a new burgeoning democratic society in Burma.

News Highlights

Myanmar National Human Rights Commission concludes its inquiry into the alleged massacre of Rohingya at Du Char Yar Tan Village, Arakan State, saying that there is no evidence of a massacre and recommends that police be issued with better quality weapons

Inside Burma

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says that the parliamentary committee report shows strong public support for amending the 2008 Constitution while leader of the Shan State Progressive Party and the Shan State Army says that constitutional change to establish federal union is essential to peace

President Thein Sein tells ministries to prepare for riots via secret order

Burma’s media bill, drafted by the Interim Press Council, is stuck at the Lower House level over an article regarding press office search and seizure

Parliament to promulgate new SEZ law which establishes SEZ committee and includes significant tax breaks for investors

NLD and 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group hold talks in Naypyidaw

Government will heed criticism of Ohn Myint’s words, says Information Minister, Aung Kyi

President Thein Sein vows to cooperate with Human Rights Watch in face-to-face meeting

Peace talks between ethnic armed groups and the government in Hpa-an, Karen State, are postponed again until March

The Nationalities Brotherhood Federation slams the ethnic group classification system to be used in the national census and demands the inclusion of non-Burman leaders, intellectuals and experts on the Union Election Commission

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and the Former Political Prisoners Society, 55 political prisoners still remain in Burma’s jails

Burma Army presses charges against 209 people who have reclaimed confiscated land in Chaung Tha village, Irrawaddy Region, for trespassing on military land and forced eviction leaves hundreds homeless in Tha Mee Lay Village, Hlegu Township, Rangoon Region while Deputy Defence Minister Major General Kyaw Nyunt issues an apology in Parliament for land seizures by the Burma Army and says it will return a total of 150,000 acres

UNICEF says that Burma needs preventive measures to protect against child sex tourism


The Border Consortium says that only 3.4% of refugees returned home from Thailand in 2013, and that conditions do not yet exist for the organized return of refugees while a fire at Umpiem refugee camp, in Tak Province, Thailand, destroys makeshift shelters

Ministry of Foreign Affairs demands that structures built by Indians on the Burma side of the border be dismantled as the two countries demarcate their extensive common border


UK government minister pressures Burma to amend 2008 Constitution to allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president and prematurely welcomes ceasefires around the country

US is criticized at home for its increased military-to-military engagement with the Burma Army despite ongoing human rights violations, especially in ethnic areas


More Deaths in Burma – And More Official Indifference
By Azeem Ibrahim
The Huffington Post

Telecom Investments Threaten Privacy Rights in Burma
By Rachel Wagley
Democratic Voice of Burma

This post is in: Weekly Highlights