RANGOON — Minister of Information Aung Kyi said this weekend that the recent detention of several journalists has created “not a good situation” for Burma’s fledgling free media, but he added that additional press regulations would soon improve protection for journalists.
Aung Kyi attended a Unesco-supported event in Rangoon to mark World Press Freedom Day Saturday where The Irrawaddy asked about the case of Zaw Pe, a reporter with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), who was sentenced on April 7 to one year’s imprisonment for trespass and disturbing a civil servant during his reporting work.
“It is not a good situation for journalists in the country. I hope the court investigated this case thoroughly before sentencing him,” said Aung Kyi.
“The main reason that these cases happen is because there is a small [legal] gap before the country completes [regulations for] the press law…. After the country has completed the press law, the press freedom will move a step ahead.”
The minister referred to additional regulations which are yet to be drawn up for the Press Law, which was adopted by Parliament after some amendments on March 4.
Although the Press Law was welcomed by media organizations, which helped draft it, the organizations were taken aback when Parliament simultaneously adopted the Printers and Publishers Registration Law proposed by the Ministry of Information.
The latter law, although it carries no prison terms, gives the ministry the power to withhold or revoke publishing licenses unilaterally, while it contains vaguely defined bans on reporting that could “incite unrest”, “insult religion” and “violate the Constitution.” The previous military regime used to invoke similar types of concern to use blanket bans on critical reporting.
A recent spate of arrests of journalists has further heightened concerns over a roll back on media freedoms by President Thein Sein’s reformist government, which since 2011 has lifted military-rule media restrictions, abolished censorship, released jailed journalists and allowed for the publication of daily newspapers.
On April 25, Yay Khae, a reporter for Mizzima, was arrested in Prome for leading an unauthorized protest calling for greater media freedom. He was charged and released on bail. Four journalists and a CEO of Unity Journal were arrested in January and charged with violating the State Secrets Act and trespassing after they wrote a story on an alleged chemical weapons factory at Magwe’s Pauk Township. They could face up to 14 years in prison.
In December, Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, a reporter of Eleven Media, was sentenced by the Loikaw Township Court in Karenni State to three months imprisonment on charges of trespassing.
Ko Ko, chairman of the Myanmar Journalist Association, issued a statement Saturday calling for the release of the detained reporters. “There are some journalists in our country who are facing trail and serve in prisons after being arrested while they were covering news. Our group would like to urge the authorities to kindly review the actions against those journalists,” it said.
Late last month, Burmese media organizations announced that they will plan a large campaign advocating for greater media freedom and protection of journalists in response to the recent arrests.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of US-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Saturday that the recent arrests amounted to “serious backsliding” on media freedom in Burma, while “new laws could allow the government to exert subtle control over the media through vague yet dangerous provisions.”
Myint Kyaw, from the Myanmar Journalists Network, said reporters remain at risk because various laws, not just media laws, were being used against them, noting that the two recent cases involved charges of trespassing. He added that the repressive, junta-era Electronic Transactions Law remains on the books.
“They did not yet abolish the Electric Transactions Act. They only reduced the sentences. They could charge opposition parties or journalists when they do not like them by using this act,” he said.
Thiha Saw, editor-in-chief of The Myanmar Freedom Daily and a Myanmar Press Council member, said the government’s repressive habits and Burma’s lack of an independent judiciary will remain a challenge for the media sector for some time to come.
“They are the government. They have a duty to inform all citizens but they still have the old mindset. They view the media as troublemakers,” he said. “And when there is a problem, the court here is not independent and we could not get justice. There is influence at the court from the president and government administration. This is a problem.”
Additional reporting by Sanay Lin and Htet Naing Zaw.