In this week’s Dateline Irrawaddy show—first aired on DVB—panelists discuss a backsliding of press freedoms in Burma, including the imprisonment of journalists for 10 years with hard labor.
Kyaw Zwa Moe: This week our topic is press freedom. After [President] U Thein Sein took office, he granted press freedom to a certain extent. But over the past month, the government has begun to restrict the press again. Recently, the chief executive and four journalists from Unity journal were given 10-year jail sentences, while some journalists were detained. So, we will discuss why the government has imposed harsh penalties. Consultant editor U Pe Myint from People’s Age journal and editor Ko Thalun Zaung Htet from The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition will join the discussion. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.
As you know, journalists were recently handed severe punishments of 10 years’ imprisonment, while other journalists were detained. This happened just a few days after President U Thein Sein said Myanmar [Burma] was ranked highest in the free press index of Southeast Asia. Looking back over the past six or seven months, there have been setbacks to a free press as the government has enacted again repressive rules and regulations. It has even tightened up the rules. Saya, why do you think U Thein Sein’s government has tightened its grip on the press?
Pe Myint: After he took office, President U Thein Sein spoke of a democratic transition. A free press is sine qua non for democracy, and he understood that. He planned to abolish the pre-publication censorship that had been practiced for four or five decades in Burma. I wonder if the president failed to envision what the situation would be like after pre-publication censorship was annulled. It was abrogated in August 2012. I guess the government must have seen many irritating things after the abolishment. The government has found it difficult to restore the grip it used to have on the press. So, under such circumstances, it has tried to control the press by using existing laws. I don’t want to criticize the laws much. But you know laws can be stretched, so I wonder if the government is stretching the rules.
KZM: The news story published by Unity journal may be controversial and may have somehow breached the law. But human rights groups and free press associations say 10 years in jail is too harsh of a sentence from a legal point of view. Do you think the punishment was given deliberately to warn other journalists and the press world?
PM: It seems like it, and everyone thinks so. The Special Branch has either summoned responsible persons of media outlets or visited offices of media companies for interrogations. Previously, the Special Branch did so only for criminal and political offences. But now, the fact that it is doing this more or less represents a threat and pressure on the press.
KZM: Ko Thalun, you took part in the protest against the president. Please tell us what happened that day. We heard that the police are preparing to sue the protesting journalists. Can you update me on the situation?
Thalun Zaung Htet: On July 10, chief executive Ko Tint San and four journalists from Unity journal were given 10 years with hard labor, which triggered the anger of most journalists. As journalists already were informed that the president would meet with some artists for the first time at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) on July 12, they planned to stage a silent protest that day without gathering the news. But they were not allowed to enter the MPC compound and thus protested outside the MPC.
KZM: Until the evening of that day after the protest, police publicly told the journalists gathering news there that protestors would not be charged. But then, police later said they planned to sue the protestors. What did they mean by doing so? What have you heard?
TZH: The deputy police office of Kamayut Township Police Force, Maung Maung Oo, said until 5:30 pm on July 12 that they had no plan to sue [protestors] under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and that they had not opened the case. But then, he said at night that the meeting decided to charge 50 journalists. I don’t know who was present at the meeting or if the instructions came from above.
KZM: Burma was once referred to as an enemy of the press by the international community, especially from 1962 until 2010 and 2011. The authoritarian regimes and military-backed governments viewed media as an enemy. Is U Thein Sein’s government showing clear signs of antagonism toward the press?
PM: I don’t know if it views the press as an enemy. But I’m sure it doesn’t really like press freedom. Compared to the past, farmers, workers and those whose lands were confiscated can air their grievances to a certain extent now. People are exercising a little bit of freedom that they didn’t get at all in the past. Many government officials do not like that or do not want people to exercise freedom. Again many people, particularly those in authority, view people expressing their wishes as indiscipline or disorder, since people were kept in order for many years. This is just my personal view. We, journalists, have no direct contact with the judicial branch, which is one of three branches of power. We can’t attend court hearings. Again, we have little interaction with the legislative branch when we discuss journalism laws. Personally, I think the branch has barely shown support for press freedom, which is a cause for concern for us. My view is the branch fears that granting press freedom will lead to the indiscipline of the press.
KZM: Now, media laws are being drafted. Some laws have been enacted and some have not. Journalists have expected those media laws to protect them. But whether those laws can protect them is in question, as journalists are given prison sentences now. How do you assess those media laws? Again, the government has formed a Press Council. How far do you think that council can go in protecting journalists?
PM: I can’t comment on behalf of the Press Council. But as a member of the council, I’ll say what I can. The government—the Information Ministry—and the Press Council worked together to draft media laws. The Press Council was tasked with drafting a media law. However, the government could not accept the provisions that journalists wanted to enshrine in the draft law for the sake of press freedom. So disagreements increased over time. Even though the Press Council was authorized to write the draft law, it had to go through the Information Ministry to get Parliament’s approval. The bill committee and press-related committee of Parliament made the final decision. So the law is not ideal for journalists. They don’t think the laws are fully democratic.
KZM: Ko Thalun, what are the differences between the initial period of reforms and the current period? Are the situations the same? What is your assessment?
TZH: It is clear that it is reversing. In late 2012, while pre-publication censorship was still in force, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division [under the Information Ministry] suspended The Voice and The Envoy for publishing news about the reshuffle of five ministers. At that time, young journalists rallied and called on the government not to close down those newspapers. The rally saw very good results. Initially, they were suspended for an unlimited period. Then the government suspended them only for two weeks and relaxed other regulations gradually. Though the government’s response was positive in the past, it is now showing negative signs by charging journalists under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law. So, we are sure that press freedom is going in reverse.
KZM: To what extent will political tensions and the political landscape force the government to restore its grip on media, as the elections will be held next year?
PM: The current government can’t make the political transition quickly. For a real transition to happen, the Constitution must be amended far and wide. Meanwhile, because pre-publication censorship was abolished, journalists seem to have taken a step forward in the transition process. The government therefore uses existing laws to restrict journalists. Again there can also be political factors, as you said. The government does not intend to do so much political liberalization, but if press freedom is granted, there will be continuous criticism of the government and also of the Constitution. There will also be a lot of talk about the election. So I think the government is trying to restrict the press for two reasons—the first one is because its political liberalization simply doesn’t go far, and the second is because it feels the need for greater control over the press in consideration of the coming election.
KZM: Thank you, Saya U Pe Myint and Ko Thalun Zaung Htet for your participation. From our discussion, we can conclude that although U Thein Sein’s government has granted a certain degree of press freedom in the past two years, it is hesitant to allow a really free press, mainly because it doesn’t like the right of the press to write freely. Thank you, all.