At first glance, the prospect of reporting on Myanmar’s public transport system seems like a pretty innocuous editorial move.
- Arrest of three journalists this week follows sentencing of two Reuters reporters
- Journalists facing mounting legal threats under Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government
- Press freedom has declined across several South-East Asian countries
But this week, Eleven Media’s pursuit of a story that criticised the funding behind Yangon’s bus network led to the arrest of three journalists after one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest confidants was seemingly portrayed in a bad light.
Executive editors Kyaw Zaw Lin and Nayi Min, along with chief reporter Phyo Wai Win, are now facing up to two years in prison after their newspaper accused Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein of mismanaging the city’s bus finances.
“I didn’t write anything wrong,” Phyo Wai Win told Reuters as he entered the police station on Wednesday.
“I only wrote the truth.”
Charged under colonial-era legislation that prohibits the publication of information which “causes fear or alarm” or “disrupts public tranquillity”, the trio are now the latest group of journalists to be targeted by Ms Suu Kyi’s Government.
Since taking power in 2015 elections that were hailed by observers as a victory for democracy and freedom of expression, 44 journalists have been targeted with legal action — both civil and criminal cases — for their reporting, according to new figures compiled by local freedom of expression organisation Athan.
The arrest of the three Eleven Media employees now brings the number of journalists sitting behind bars to five.
Last month, two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were sentenced to seven years in prison over their reporting on Rakhine State.
“A journalist in Myanmar can be arrested anytime,” Athan executive director Maung Saungkha told the ABC.
“It’s getting worse than [under the] previous state.”
‘Last thing Myanmar wants is journalists uncovering stories’
A quasi-civilian Government took power in 2011, opening up Myanmar’s media sector for the first time after two decades of isolation under a harsh military junta.
While reporters often had to tread carefully, independent newspapers and magazines were finally able to operate from inside the country.
The families of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo waiting for their verdict. (Reuters: Matthew Tostevin)
Observers then expected democracy icon Ms Suu Kyi to continue on the path set by her military general predecessor Thein Sein.
Instead, press freedom is rapidly backsliding.
Shawn Crispin, South-East Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the ABC the conviction of the Reuters reporters “sent a clear and chilling message … that no journalist is safe when reporting critically on the Government or the autonomous military”.
“Authorities are clearly trying to cover up the abuses committed in expelling the Rohingya,” he said.
“The last thing Myanmar authorities want is for journalists to uncover stories of abuse that may one day be used against them in an international court of justice.”
Suu Kyi’s ‘inaction has been immensely disappointing’
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticised for her response to press freedom issues.
(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)
Ms Suu Kyi has the political power to put a stop to the repression of the press, Mr Crispin said, but instead has chosen not to act.
“Her inaction has been immensely disappointing to those who once saw her as a champion of democracy,” he said.
Of the 28 cases against the 44 journalists, 17 were brought by government officials and three by the military, according to Athan executive director Maung Saungkha.
“The more mistakes they [the Government] make, the more the want to silence the journalists,” he said.
Printed black front page of one of #Myanmar news journals today in protest against journalists’ sentencing. And it says “Everything is alright” #PressFreedom
Amnesty International’s director of crisis response Tirana Hassan has called for the “thin-skinned” authorities to immediately release the most recently arrested trio.
But last weekend, Ms Suu Kyi again defended the state of press freedom in Myanmar in an interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK, saying observers should study “not just the conventional media but also social media, because it’s a very active sector”.
Myanmar is not the only South-East Asian government currently attempting to silence the press — Cambodia and the Philippines have both recently ramped up efforts to clamp down on independent media outlets, while Vietnam and Laos each have a severely restricted media landscape.
Press advocates say that in general in recent years, there has been a global decline in press freedoms, which some observers have attributed to “the Trump effect”, charging that United States President Donald Trump’s hostile attacks on the media have emboldened other world leaders.
Back in Myanmar, Mr Crispin said the country risked reverting to its previous status as an international pariah unless the Government took urgent action.
“If Aung San Suu Kyi intends to maintain the pretence that she presides over a democratic government, she needs to show the world that she upholds and believes in a free press,” he said.
“Without a free press, Myanmar’s democracy will remain a mirage.”