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Asia

Myanmar media facing 'climate of fear' ahead of elections

Threats, harassment, and imprisonment - a new Amnesty International report says Myanmar is intensifying restrictions on the media as the country approaches crucial national elections. Could this impact the outcome?

"Since 2014, the enjoyment of media freedom has reversed... [the authorities] are filing lawsuits against journalists and imprisoning them on 'national security' and defamation charges." These are the words of Zaw, a Myanmar-based journalist reporting on religious and political issues, speaking to Amnesty International (AI) this May on how freedom of expression has been deteriorating in the Southeast Asian nation just a few months ahead of a general election set to be held this November.

Zaw is one of several national and international journalists operating in Myanmar who were interviewed by the human rights group for its latest briefing on the state of the media in the country.

Released on June 17 and titled "Caught between state censorship and self-censorship: Prosecution and intimidation of media workers in Myanmar," the 22-page document argues that Myanmar's authorities are intensifying restrictions on media, using threats, intimidation and imprisonment to stifle independent journalism and media outlets.

"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. In fact, the situation for freedom of expression has worsened over the past year," said Rupert Abbott, AI's Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Myanmar Präsident Thein Sein 29.04.2013

Thein Sein's government has earned praise over the past several years for undertaking political, economic and social reforms

Initial reforms

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein has earned international praise over the past several years for undertaking political, economic and social reforms that have resulted in the lifting of most Western sanctions.

Following the end of the military junta's authoritarian rule in 2011, the country's media landscape has seen radical changes thanks to a string of measures which include the lifting of pre-publication censorship, the release of imprisoned journalists and greater space for freedom of expression.

From a handful of media outlets controlled through strict pre-publication censorship four years ago, today there exists an increasingly diverse media scene with several independent newspapers and broadcast channels.

Beware of 'sensitive' issues

Yet the AI report indicates that as journalists and critics become more vocal, the authorities have increasingly sought to stifle dissent through a range of vaguely formulated laws which some regard as draconian.

"Myanmar's parliament passed legislation last year to regulate the media and publishing industries, and authorities will use provisions under this law to keep the media in check," Phuong Nguyen, Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), told DW, adding that the Ministry of Information and the Myanmar Press Council have considerable sway over the media landscape.

In particular, those deemed critical of the government, the Myanmar Army or the intelligence agencies, or who report on subjects considered sensitive - such as the Rohingya or armed conflict in ethnic areas - can face intimidation, harassment and at times arrest, detention, prosecution and even imprisonment.

AI argues in its report that the clampdown has intensified over the past year. In fact, during 2014 at least 11 media workers were imprisoned in connection with their journalistic activities, while others reported direct threats, surveillance, restrictions on access to certain areas of the country, and the use of defamation lawsuits to stifle reporting.

"It is hard always to know their [the authorities'] limits, but anything critical of the military or military affairs… if you expose those issues you can be jailed, intimidated… they can use the law against you." Saw Yan Naing, a journalist with the news magazine The Irrawaddy, was quoted by AI as saying.

Moreover, in October 2014, a journalist who was once a democracy activist and a bodyguard for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was killed by soldiers while held in military custody. An investigation has been opened into his killing but to date no one has been held to account.

According to Jasmin Lorch, a research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, the military actively seeks to manipulate public opinion about the country's communal conflicts. It limits independent reporting about fighting in ethnic area, Lorch noted.

There have also been reports about threats and intimidation emanating from hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups against media workers and organizations covering anti-Muslim violence in the country. "Such cases have had a chilling effect on journalists and other media workers in Myanmar, and have led to a climate in which self-censorship is widely practiced," said AI.

'Red lines'

So what impact is this having on the coverage of the upcoming election? AI points out that the increasing level of repression is contributing to a climate of fear. The rights group says that journalists operating in Myanmar have become 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.

"At the moment self-censorship is about not going to prison," Cherry Thein, a journalist with The Myanmar Times, was quoted as saying. 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.

Moreover, the report indicates that in order to effectively shut down whole media 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. For the opposition, this means that they could face difficulties getting their message out ​ and this could, in turn, affect their ability to effectively campaign and reach out to constituents.

Analyst Nguyen argues that the government understands that it needs to allow the media to function during the election period or risks having the elections seen in the West as not credible. At the same time, if authorities judge that any reporting "insults religion" or "harms ethnic unity," they may decide to take action, she argued.

A journalist speaking to AI on condition of anonymity explained that while it has been OK so far to report on elections, it will be a problem if reporters write about issues such as vote-rigging. "There could be a risk to local reporters, the government could take action, arrest them, issue a new law, detain them, shut down their publications, sue their publications. This is a risk," said the journalist.

'The problem will get worse'

In this context, Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, criticized the international community for being much too optimistic about the changes in the climate for free expression in Myanmar.

Myanmar Gewalt zwischen Rohingya Muslime und Buddhisten

Myanmar media often shy away from covering sensitive issues such as the plight of the Rohingya minority, says AI

"We're seeing reporters pay the price for assuming that the government had really reformed. The problem will get worse as the political election season gets going and attacks back and forth between the parties, and on the existing government and its policies, intensify - and I expect that we will see more journalists facing persecution and charges for what they have written or broadcast," Robertson told DW.

Given this development, AI's Rupert Abbott called on the government to immediately release all journalists jailed, publicly commit to respect freedom of expression, and repeal all laws used to silence peaceful dissenting voices and critics and urged the international community to keep a close watch over the fragile human rights situation in the months leading up to the elections.