Myanmar’s media stifled by climate of fear

Myanmar’s authorities are intensifying restrictions on media as the country approaches crucial national elections, scheduled to be held in November, using threats, harassment and imprisonment to stifle independent journalists and outlets, Amnesty International said in a new briefing today.

Caught between state censorship and self-censorship: Prosecution and intimidation of media workers in Myanmar shows how, despite Myanmar’s much-touted “political opening” since 2011, authorities are relying on old and new methods to intimidate media and restrict freedom of expression. The clampdown has intensified over the past year – today at least 10 media workers are languishing in prison, all of them jailed in the last 12 months. All are prisoners of conscience.

What we are seeing in Myanmar today is repression dressed up as progress. Authorities are still relying on the same old tactics – arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time to muzzle those journalists who cover ‘inconvenient’ topics.

Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific

Myanmar’s media landscape has changed dramatically since the reform process started in 2011. From a handful of media outlets controlled through strict pre-publication censorship, today there exists a vibrant media scene with several independent newspapers and broadcast channels. Yet widespread repression of media continues in Myanmar, as authorities rely on a range of draconian, vaguely formulated laws to imprison journalists.

Amnesty International’s interviews with media workers revealed that the threat of imprisonment and constant surveillance have led to widespread self-censorship. Journalists are well aware of what “red lines” they cannot cross – mainly stories relating to the military, extremist Buddhist nationalism and the plight of the Rohingya minority – and often shy away from covering these issues.

“We walk a fine line on the cusp, finding out that we’ve hit a nerve when they arrest someone or ban the media from covering an issue in a balanced and fair way”, said one journalist, who asked not to be named.

The case of the Unity media workers is one such example. Five workers at the paper were each jailed for seven years in July 2014 after their newspaper published a story on an alleged secret chemical weapons factory. Their imprisonment is frequently cited by journalists as an example of what can happen if they “step over the line” in their reporting on the army.

In October 2014, freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing was shot dead while in military custody – his exhumed body bore signs of torture. An investigation has been opened into his killing but to date no one has been held to account.

Such cases contribute to a climate of fear. It is telling that the majority of media workers Amnesty International interviewed for this briefing requested anonymity – citing fear of imprisonment or other reprisals.

Countless other media workers are harassed and threatened over their work, in particular when covering “sensitive” issues. Attacks on media can come from the government, the military and intelligence agencies, as well as from hardline nationalist Buddhist groups. Several journalists told Amnesty International that military personnel had threatened to throw them in jail or assault them physically when covering issues related to the army, such as armed conflict in ethnic areas.

To effectively shut down whole outlets, authorities are also often dragging media through lengthy and costly legal processes, or relying on collective punishment where the response to one critical story is prosecuting several people from the same outlet.

“As people in Myanmar go to the polls later this year, a free press will be more important than ever to inform the public about the choices they face and strengthen their access to information. The government must immediately release all journalists jailed for simply carrying out their work peacefully, publicly commit to respect freedom of expression, and repeal all laws used to silence peaceful dissenting voices and critics,” said Rupert Abbott.

“The international community also has a key role to play in pushing the Myanmar authorities to end the repression of media. They must actively and publicly push for the release of imprisoned media workers and all other prisoners of conscience, while keeping a close watch over the fragile human rights situation in the months leading up to the elections.”