World Bulletin / News Desk
A spate of arrests of journalists is undermining recent advances in press freedoms in Myanmar, the U.S. group Human Rights Watch has warned.
In a statement to mark World Press Freedom Day, the group’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said Saturday that new laws and the intimidation of journalists were preventing the country’s democratic reform process from progressing.
He added that “serious backsliding” on media reforms “raises concerns about the government’s commitment to a free press.”
The group called on the government to end “arbitrary arrests” of journalists and to amend “oppressive” media laws.
In 2012, Myanmar’s government freed 14 journalists from prison and ended pre-publication press censorship, a move that won international praise as the country began emerging from over 50 years of military rule.
But there has since been a renewed clampdown. In the last five months, at least six journalists have been arrested or sentenced as part of what HRW says are “apparently politically motivated prosecutions.”
They include Ma Khine, a reporter with the Eleven Daily newspaper, who in December became the first journalist to be imprisoned under president Thein Sein’s reformist government.
She was jailed for trespassing, using abusive language, and defamation after visiting a lawyer’s house to interview her for a story on corruption.
The lawyer asked Ma Khine to leave after becoming annoyed at her questions and then filed a lawsuit against her, Daily Eleven editor Wai Phyo said at the time of the sentencing.
Wai Phyo also believes the judge handed down a three month sentence, rather than just a fine, in an attempt to intimidate the press.
In January, four journalists and the CEO of the Unity Journal were arrested after the newspaper published a story on an alleged chemical weapons factory. The five are still on trial and could each face up to 14 years in jail on charges of trespassing and revealing state secrets.
HRW also warned that “vague” new press laws introduced in March “could intimidate editors to curtail investigative journalism and reporting on sensitive topics.”
The Printers and Publishers Registration Law gives Myanmar’s Ministry of Information sweeping powers to revoke press licenses if publishers are deemed to have breached loosely defined rules such as disturbing the rule of law or insulting religion.
Foreign reporters working in Myanmar have also seen new freedoms curtailed this year. In February the government brought in regulations that limit how long foreign journalists are allowed to stay in the country. Some had their visas reduced from one month to one week, said HRW.
In March a journalist who worked on a Time magazine cover story about Buddhist extremism in Myanmar was denied a visa. The issue, published last year, sparked street protests and was taken off shelves across the country.
Activists in other southeast Asia countries also tackled the subject of press freedoms on Saturday. In Cambodia, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights stated: “A free, independent and pluralistic press is a vital pillar of democracy, and freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Democracy cannot be achieved without freedom of expression and an independent media that is able to raise questions, criticize, and open the space for debate and dialogue."
Since Cambodia’s transition to democracy in 1992, there have been at least 11 reported killings of journalists and media workers who expressed criticism of the country's government.
“The gag on Cambodian journalists is stifling democracy and human rights in Cambodia,” Ou Virak added.
Cambodia numbered 132 out of 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Myanmar ranked 145, Thailand - where the lese majeste law and Computer Crime Act have long been criticized for trampling on freedom of expression - registered 130, while southeast Asian neighbor Malaysia came in at a historic low of 147.
A Freedom House Press Freedom Report for the year 2013 categorized Malaysia as “not free," giving it a “downward trend arrow” due to what it termed “rampant electoral fraud and structural obstacles to block the opposition from winning power.”
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