The October death and alleged torture of a Burmese journalist while under army custody is another instance in a long year of state attacks on the press in the former pariah nation. Earlier this year, five staff members of the now bankrupt Unity journal were sentenced to jail for seven years and hard labor under a 100-year old spying statute after reporting on an alleged chemical weapons production site. Five staffers from local paper Bi Mon Te Nay each received two years for quoting an activist group erroneously claiming that Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government. The charge: defamation of the state.
Yet Burma’s current media environment represents one of the most open in the country’s history. The government has released dozens of journalists from prison and has largely dismantled the country’s extensive censorship regime. Workers in print, television, online media, and radio are experiencing a level of freedom unprecedented in the country’s post-independence years. Previously off-limits topics such as Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, rampant poverty, ethnic conflicts, and government land-grabs are now being granted front-page features. In October 2012 Burmese President Thein Sein openly referred to the press as the country’s “fourth estate” in an address to the United Nations’ General Assembly.
But these gains are beginning to lose ground to a fresh wave of oppression, and many are beginning to doubt the government’s commitment to genuine reform. This year alone, at least ten prison sentences have been handed down to journalists. And because the government has refused to grant publishing licenses to papers operating in Burma’s restive hinterlands, large swaths of the county remain outside the realm of regular press scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, there are regular reports of army brutality in such areas.
The freedoms granted to the press following Burma’s recent reforms are slipping. If Naypyidaw’s regression isn’t checked, the country’s media environment will likely return to the Orwellian conditions of the previous junta regime. Back then, writing anything that could be perceived as being critical of the regime was a perilous move. “Any journalist who got out of line simply disappeared and ended up in prison,” says Doug Cosper, a media instructor who from 2008–11 taught journalism to more than three hundred Burmese reporters in Yangon through a covert program with the State Department. “The usual sentence for sending stories out by the internet, for example, was about seventy years in prison. I know several people who got life.”
Though the press has been given more space under the reformist government, Burma’s reporting environment is still defined by uncertainty. For Burmese journalists, working there must feel something akin to standing before a door open to a very dimly lit space; no one is really sure what will happen if they step inside. Given the imprecise nature of these new freedoms, self-censorship is common among the country’s media workers. “We can write critically, but we have to be careful because we are not yet a real democracy,” said Than Htut Aung, editor of the journal Weekly Eleven, to the Committee to Protect Journalists in a 2013 report. “National reconciliation, ethnic issues, religious tensions—all of these we and all journalists have to censor by ourselves because our country’s situation is not stable.”
Nobody expected Burma’s reclusive rulers to relinquish power without a fight; in 2007 it was tied with Somalia as the world’s most corrupt country, according to Transparency International. Yet in March 2011, following nationwide elections, the junta did exactly that, handing over the reigns to a quasi-civilian parliamentary government in what was lauded as one of the most significant geopolitical events of the new century. While citizens in the Middle East and North Africa were fighting from the grassroots level for democratic reform, in Burma it was coming from the top—and without violence or mayhem.
The reformist government, led by President Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister under the junta years, soon began dissolving the state’s firm grip over Burmese life. In a presidential pardon, hundreds of political prisoners were freed from their squalid cells, among them 14 journalists who had been locked up for their reporting. Some had been in captivity for more than two decades. Workers were allowed to unionize. Members of the main opposition group, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, were allowed to run for parliamentary office—and win. In August 2012, the government finally dismantled the Ministry of Information’s pre-publication censorship regime.
The Obama administration, whose foreign policy record in 2011 had been languishing after the bedlam of the Arab Spring, was quick to jump on the Burmese bandwagon. The White House removed longstanding economic and financial sanctions on the country in July 2012, and in November of the same year Obama became the first-ever sitting American President to visit Burma.
Today, Burma’s democratization remains on the U.S. foreign policy priority list. Obama visited the country again in November to attend a couple of international summits; while there he admitted to the Yangon-based magazine Irrawaddy that “progress has not come as fast as many had hoped,” citing, among other issues, abuses against the media and the “senseless” October killing of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, the first death of a Burmese reporter in seven years. While he was right to lament the country’s deteriorating media environment, the United States and other donor countries could do more to pressure President Thein Sein to address abuses against the press in his country, most of which go unpunished.
No one, for example, has been charged in the case of Aung Kyaw Naing’s death, which the army waited nearly three weeks to report. This is unacceptable. The army claims the journalist was shot when he tried to steal a soldier’s gun and escape. They also claimed he was an undercover agent of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), an ethnic rebel group whose fighting with the military in Mon state he had been covering when he was taken into army custody, a claim the DKBA denies.
An autopsy in early November revealed signs of torture, including broken ribs, a broken jaw, and a caved-in skull, , according to reporting done by the Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit Burmese media group. Furthermore, news reports suggest that the deceased’s widow, Than Dar, was intimidated and harassed by authorities while filing formal murder charges against the military. Given the brutality of the freelancer’s death, journalists have taken it as a grim warning from the army, and possibly the government, against reporting on the country’s ethnic conflicts. Whether or not it was planned to intimidate the press, it was all too reminiscent of the thuggery of the old regime.
Meanwhile, state attacks on the press may be becoming institutionalized. In February 2013, Aung Kyi, minister of the newly formed Myanmar Press Council, a government-appointed body that advocates self-censorship, submitted a draft Printing and Publishing Regulations bill that would ban any reporting that “disturbs the rule of law,” “violates the constitution and other laws,” or “incites unrest.” The original draft of the bill would also grant the Council the power to demand that publications hand over their pre-published material for review. Any violation of these rules would carry a minimum prison sentence of six months. The bill would have granted the Council nearly identical powers as those previously held by the Ministry of Information under the junta. While presenting the bill to parliament Aung Kyi stated that the legislation was designed to stop the proliferation of gambling tips and pornography, and claimed that this unscrupulous material was spreading under Myanmar’s new press freedoms.
After nearly a year, and with revisions, the bill was passed in March 2014. The mandatory prison sentence was dropped but replaced with fines that can be levied against journalists whose writing “incites unrest” or undermines the “rule of law.” It gives the government the power to withdraw publishing licenses from any media group that falls afoul of these vague limits. The law also bans the publication of any material that harms ethnic unity, “insults” religion, or displays nudity.
In the first lawsuit to be filed after the bill was passed, 11 employees of the Myanmar Herald were hit with defamation charges by the government in November. The paper, which had published an interview with a political scientist criticizing President Thein Sein, has been charged with “tarnishing the reputation” of the President. “We [in the media] have pointed out in transparent terms the shortcomings, drawbacks, and weaknesses of the government, and I wonder if they are making an example out of us so that we will not dare to write about them,” said Aung Tun Lin, editor-in-charge at the paper, to U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia.
While much of the reformist government’s ill treatment of the press can be blamed on the difficulties of transition, another key factor in Burma’s tumultuous relationship with the media is ethnic tensions. From Muslim-Buddhist violence in Rakhine to the ongoing conflict in Kachin State, Burma faces a number of ethnic crises that could break out in violence at virtually any moment. There is no doubt that the country’s newly open media environment has exacerbated these issues. Indeed, some of the country’s most chaotic episodes during the reform period have been sparked through the use of social media to proliferate news. The deadly anti-Muslim riots in July of this year in Mandalay, for instance, began after someone posted a news story on Facebook of an alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by her Muslim employer. Though the story turned out to be bogus, it quickly went viral, and anger turned into communal violence within a day of the posting.
Because these ethnic conflicts are so volatile, the state can play the national security card at practically any time to censor the press. Vague national-security laws such as the 1923 Official Secrets Act, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, the 2000 Internet Act, and the 2004 Electronic Transaction Act, still exist as they did under military rule, ensuring that such censoring can be legally enforced and journalists punished for non-compliance. Officials have wide discretion in deciding whether a published work poses a “threat to national security, domestic tranquility, or racial harmony.” While these laws remain mostly unenforced in the reform period (besides a few glaring examples) they can be utilized as mechanisms of abuse whenever authorities so decide. Reporters are spooked, and these laws undoubtedly influence what they do and do not report on. “These laws are still there and so can be used at any time. They are hanging above our heads,” said Win Tin, a columnist for the D Wave newspaper. “We want to abolish these laws.”
Striking these laws will be a tall order indeed. Burma’s former censorship regime was one of the most extensive and determined in the world (the junta once dubbed Radio Free Asia “an enemy of the state”), and will not go quietly. In an August 2012 story for the New Yorker, Evan Osnos relates an encounter in which a Burmese journalist covering a political rally is approached by a former agent of the Special Branch, the state’s secret police. The plainclothes officer mistook the journalist for a fellow agent, saying, “We’re like fish out of water here. Who knows what we’re supposed to do?” The journalist, who had spent six years in jail, told Osnos, “I almost felt sorry for him.” So socially entrenched was the former Myanmar censorship machine that even a once-imprisoned reporter can feel sympathy toward a former enforcer.
In a country where obtaining the government’s permission for nearly every printed or recorded piece of media was, until two years ago, a normal chore, the transition to a free press is not as easy as flipping a switch. Yet this is exactly why the United States and other democracies involved in Burma’s rebirth must adamantly press Nayipidaw to ensure its journalists’ safety. Like an addict trying to kick his habit, Burma needs to be regularly reminded that jailing, threatening, and abusing its reporters is unbecoming of a democracy in the making. “One aspect of civil service is the requirement that you develop a thick skin,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Daniel Russell to officials during a visit to Burma last spring. “The fact that you don’t like what reporters are writing isn’t justification for limiting their ability to operate.” These are the kinds of reminders that outside stakeholders should be constantly making to the Burmese government.
Many observers as well as media workers in Burma remain fiercely skeptical of the government’s intentions. They claim that the recent wave of press freedoms was a ploy intended to attract investment from the West. Now that Burma has Western money flowing in, the government will revert to its old ways, the theory goes. “The short-lived opening was a sop to the United States and other Western governments calling for democratic progress in return for repealing economic sanctions,” said Shawn Crispin, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, to Reuters in May. The government’s lack of movement on revising junta-era state security laws, and its proactive moves to pass legislation institutionalizing pre-publication censorship, certainly don’t supply evidence to the contrary.
Yet at the same time, it is unlikely that Burma would return to its outrageously authoritarian ways. “The generals that were in charge during the junta are still there, and I suspect they’re still pulling the strings. But the question is what they intend for the country,“ said the media instructor Doug Cosper. “I would say it’s unlikely that Burma can be pulled back into dictatorship, but I don’t think anybody would dismiss the possibility.”
A free press is the cornerstone of a free society. President Obama should make it clear that America’s role in Burma’s revival will be contingent on journalists being able to do their job without fear of incarceration or worse. If the country is to transform itself into a genuine democracy, Naypyidaw must come to believe that, in the words of a former Burmese political prisoner, “Words are not crimes.”