RANGOON — In his first ever visit to Burma, the US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs raised concerns with Burma’s information minister about the recent arrest of Burmese journalists.
Richard Stengel met on Monday and Tuesday in Naypyidaw with Information Minister Aung Kyi, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Culture Minister Aye Myint Kyu, to discuss press freedom, bilateral relations and cultural exchanges.
The US undersecretary told reporters in Rangoon on Tuesday that the Burma government had taken important steps to cultivate an environment conducive to free, fair and independent media, which he said was a critical element of democracy.
“However, in the past few months, the United States has watched with concern the arrest and sentencing of journalists trying to cover stories. These arrests raise questions about the extent of the government’s commitment to freedom of the press,” he added.
The arrest and imprisonment of several journalists from local media groups this year has led to protests by journalists, who say they fear a roll-back of press freedoms following a loosening up of restrictions since 2011.
In December last year, Eleven Media reporter Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho, also known as Ma Khine, was sentenced by a court in Karenni State to three months in prison on charges of trespassing into a lawyer’s home while seeking comments for a story about corruption.
In February, four journalists and an editor of the Rangoon-based Unity journal were arrested and charged with trespassing and violating the Official Secrets Act, after they published a story alleging that Chinese engineers were helping the Burma Army to build a chemical weapons factory. The defendants face a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment.
Earlier this month, a Magwe Division court sentenced Zaw Pe, a video reporter with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), to one year in prison for trespassing at an education department office and disrupting the duties of a civil servant there.
“These arrests raise questions about the extent of the government’s commitment to freedom of the press,” Stengel said. “In my discussions, I encouraged the government and local media to work together to create an environment where access to good, accurate information is guaranteed and where journalists serve to elevate the public discourse.”
During his visit, the US undersecretary spoke with journalists about ways to ensure a responsible media environment. He also met with civil society representatives, students and entrepreneurs to discuss how US government education and exchange programs can support Burma’s reforms.
“It’s an honor be here, my first trip as undersecretary, to demonstrate US commitment to strengthening ongoing reforms,” he said in a statement.
“I came to this country on my first official trip overseas, not just because of the unprecedented reforms this country is undertaking, but because we believe that partnering with the union government to invest in the people—through targeted education and exchange programs—will pay dividends.”
In advance of World Press Freedom Day on Saturday, Stengel encouraged Burmese journalists to apply for US journalism scholarship and fellowships.
Stengel was the managing editor of Time magazine from 2006 to 2013. Before that, he served as president and chief executive of the nonprofit National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and as a professor of journalism at Princeton University in 1999.