There’s little cause for celebration this World Press Freedom Day in Myanmar, where freedom of the press is under threat and the space for independent and critical reporting is collapsing. In the last year, despite an ostensible transition toward democratic rule under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s government has intensified arrests and prosecutions of journalists. According to Reporters without Borders, Myanmar is now ranked 137 out of 180 in the world in terms of press freedom, slipping six places from the previous year’s ranking. Journalists are now facing the kinds of threats they faced under Myanmar’s old military junta: they are being threatened, vilified, thrown in jail, and prosecuted.
Take Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been behind bars for five months. Their crime? Uncovering atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State perpetrated by the Myanmar army and local Rakhine Buddhists. Recently, some of the soldiers convicted of crimes that the two journalists uncovered received 10-year sentences “for contributing and participating in murder,” the maximum possible. The journalists, however, face up to 14 years in prison under the Official Secrets Act, for possessing documents that police themselves provided to the journalists, in a sting meant to punish them for their past reporting. Now the two men are held without bail, and initially were unable to see their families or counsel.
The Official Secrets Act is only one of many laws used to sanction journalists. In 2017 alone, over 20 journalists were charged with violating section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which criminalizes online defamation and can carry a penalty of up to two years.
But prosecution isn’t the only threat. Recently, the country’s only Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Esther Htusan, was forced to flee Myanmar following the publication of a report containing an erroneous translation of a sentence in a speech given by Aung San Suu Kyi. Although the report was later corrected, Htusan, who routinely reported on subjects critical of the government, received threats, including those to her life, was followed, and an article published in state-run media said she had an “evil soul.”
A recent nationwide survey conducted by local organizations and published by Freedom Expression Myanmar found that, among other things, journalists feel less safe, and the ability to cover conflict areas, which effectively suffer from news blackouts by the government, has declined.
The Myanmar government has not demonstrated a real commitment to a free, independent, and critical media. Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian-led government, which holds a majority of the seats in Parliament, has the power to reform laws used to silence journalists and end spurious prosecutions, and investigate and prosecute those who are threatening journalists, but its leaders are failing to exercise their authority. It’s about time they started.