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(New York) – Burma’s government should immediately end arbitrary arrests of journalists and ensure that media laws promote a free press, Human Rights Watch said on May 3, 2014, World Press Freedom Day.

“International praise for expanding media freedoms in Burma has been undercut by arrests and intimidation of journalists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This serious backsliding raises concerns about the government’s commitment to a free press.”

Since December 2013, Burmese authorities have arrested and charged several journalists on apparently politically motivated prosecutions under criminal trespass, defamation, peaceful assembly, and other laws. These include:

  • Naw Khine Khine Aye Cho (also known as Ma Khine), a reporter for Daily Eleven, who was sentenced in December 2013 to three months in prison by a court in Loikaw, the Karenni State capital, for alleged trespass, criminal defamation, and use of obscene language connected to reporting on a corruption case involving a local lawyer;
  • Four reporters and the CEO of the Unity Journal, who were arrested in January 2014 for publishing a story on an alleged chemical weapons plant in Magwe region. The five are on trial in Pauk township, Magwe Region, for alleged trespass and revealing state secrets;
  • A reporter for Democratic Voice of Burma, Zaw Pe, who was sentenced on April 7 to one year’s imprisonment by a court in Magwe Region for alleged trespass and disturbing a civil servant, connected to his investigation of alleged corruption in the local education department; and
  • Yay Khae, a reporter for Mizzima news agency, who was arrested on April 25 in Prome (Pyay) in central Burma for leading a demonstration of 15 local journalists and activists protesting against arrests and intimidation of the media. Authorities charged him with violating the law on assembly and procession, and released him on bail.

Burmese journalists and rights activists have staged several peaceful demonstrations in several cities to protest the arrests of journalists and restrictions on the media. After Zaw Pe’s conviction, several Burmese-language outlets published black front pages on April 11.

There have been widespread calls to amend section 18 of the 2012 Law Relating to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession, which imposes up to one-year sentences on any procession leader for marching without permission from local authorities. More than 100 journalists, human rights defenders, and land rights activists are facing charges under the provision. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the Burmese government to immediately amend the law so that it complies with international human rights standards protecting the right to peaceful assembly.

In March, the government enacted two media laws – the Printers and Publishers Registration Law (drafted by the Ministry of Information) and the Media Law (drafted by the Burma Press Council). Burmese journalists sharply criticized the legislation for ushering in a new, more subtle form of censorship. The Printers and Publishers Registration Law allows the Ministry of Information to revoke the registration of any publication that it finds has taken any of a number of broadly defined actions such as insulting religion, disturbing the rule of law, or harming ethnic unity. The vague law could intimidate editors to curtail investigative journalism and reporting on sensitive topics such as corruption and abuse of power.

The Public Service Media Bill aims to transform state-controlled media such as the New Light of Myanmar and Myanmar Television (MRTV) into public service outlets funded by government and governed by a press board. Written with assistance from UNESCO, the draft law has yet to be made publicly available. The independent Press Council rejected a draft in March for being too vague and not severing government control over these outlets.

“The new laws could allow the government to exert subtle control over the media through vague yet dangerous provisions,” Robertson said. “The switch from crude censorship to fines for crossing ambiguous lines will deny Burmese the press freedom they deserve.”

Burma’s government has imposed new restrictions on journalist visas that limit foreign reporting on the country. The Ministry of Information has reduced visas issued to journalists working for formerly exiled media outlets such as The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Regulations issued in February reduce the length of stay for foreign journalists, and some who previously received month-long visas had their stay reduced to one week. In March, the Ministry of Information denied a visa to Time magazine correspondent Hannah Beech for her reporting on rising Buddhist extremism in Burma in a 2013 Time cover story.

“World Press Freedom Day should be marked with the lifting of restrictions on journalists, not threats of new arrests or oppressive media laws,” Robertson said. “Only through a free press and government respect for journalists’ rights will democratic reform move forward.”

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