MANDALAY — A foreign reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) news agency was deported from Burma on Thursday after covering a protest in support of press freedom.
Immigration authorities said 24-year-old Angus Watson, an Australian reporter working for DVB’s Rangoon bureau, violated the terms of his business visa by covering the protest in Magwe, central Burma. Watson was also accused of participating in the protest, which had been organized without permission from the government to show support for another DVB reporter, Zaw Pe, who was imprisoned last month.
“Watson did not participate in the rally. He only went to cover the news,” Toe Zaw Latt, the bureau chief in Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy.
“DVB is a registered multimedia group, in accordance with Burmese law, and our reporter had a business visa to work at the Rangoon office. I wonder why he can’t cover the news,” the bureau chief added.
Watson’s deportation is believed to be the first time a journalist has been forced by the government to leave the country since President Thein Sein’s administration began easing press censorship in 2012. Earlier this year, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times was sent back to Rangoon, but not forced to leave the country, after she was found reporting in restive Arakan State on a tourist visa.
Ye Htut, a presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information, said Watson would not have been deported had he held a journalist visa.
“He was on a business visa, but he participated in a protest that did not have government permission. So he violated the immigration act and was deported,” Ye Htut said in a statement on his Facebook page.
“We have many foreign correspondents on journalist visas here. They have never faced deportation. MOI [the Ministry of Information] is open to accepting and approving journalist visa applications. … We have to question DVB and why their reporter was not on journalist visa.
“The deportation of the DVB journalist has nothing to do with press freedom. If he was on journalist visa, he wouldn’t be deported.”
Earlier this year, Burma’s Ministry of Immigration began denying applications for three- to six-month journalist visas to foreign passport holders working at formerly exiled media groups, including DVB. In some instances, the ministry began granting journalist visas that were valid for only a fraction of the requested time—one or two weeks—which was not practical for journalists who were based in the country and working for local news agencies.
Instead, more journalists with foreign passports began applying for business visas. Some journalists had already been using business visas before the new restrictions were imposed.
In early 2013, when the government was preparing to begin issuing journalist visas for the first time, Ye Htut told the Guardian newspaper that the visas would allow reporters to gain access to government ministries.
“If he wants to interview a government official but doesn’t have a journalist visa, he may not get access,” the presidential spokesman told the London-based newspaper.
At the time, Ye Htut told the newspaper that reporters who entered the country on a tourist visa and chose to report unofficially would not be penalized for doing so, although they might struggle to arrange interviews with officials.
Protest for Press Freedom
DVB’s Watson was detained by immigration authorities after covering a rally on Wednesday of Magwe-based journalists who were demanding the release of Zaw Pe, a DVB video journalist from Magwe Township who was recently sentenced to one year in prison after attempting to interview an official at an education department.
The protesting journalists had applied for government permission to conduct the rally but were denied. When they proceeded anyway, police officers initially blocked their way but later allowed them to continue.
After the protest, an immigration officer escorted Watson back to Rangoon, with orders to deport the Australian reporter from the country immediately.
“He did not participate in the rally. He only took some pictures and video recordings, and he interviewed some of us,” said Tin Shwe, a protest leader.
“We were protesting for press freedom and the release of a DVB reporter, but another DVB reporter was deported instead. Freedom of expression has been violated.”
Local journalists say authorities in Magwe Division have taken an especially tough stance against journalists. In addition to Zaw Pe’s imprisonment, four journalists and the chief executive of Rangoon-based Unity journal were arrested earlier this year after publishing a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory in Magwe.
The DVB bureau chief in Rangoon said these arrests were a bad sign for press freedom.
“We wonder if authorities are trying to oppress the media now, ahead of the upcoming election in 2015. We wonder if it is Naypyidaw or the responsible divisions that are deciding to pressure the media,” Toe Zaw Latt said.
“But we do not need to be afraid of this harassment. We will investigate these matters and discuss with our lawyers to take action for freedom of the press.”