Myanmar’s media treads carefully amid worrying curbs on press freedom

In Myanmar, the electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's party led to hopes have high for democratic and media freedoms. But a recent string of arrests has Myanmar's media concerned about that freedom.

Senin, 16 Jan 2017 10:31 WIB

Journalist May Thingyan Hein (standing) in the newsroom at Myit Makha Media Agency in Yangon (Photo:

Journalist May Thingyan Hein (standing) in the newsroom at Myit Makha Media Agency in Yangon (Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew)





When Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the landmark elections in 2015, hopes were high for the future of Myanmar. Hopes for democracy and democratic freedoms, including a vibrant and independent press. 

But a string of recent arrests; for sedition, defamation and incitement has those in the country’s media worrying about just how free – or not –  they really are.

Asia Calling correspondent Kannikar Pechkaew has this report.



The streets of Yangon are busy with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the roar of engines and the shouts of sugar cane vendors.

This road in the city’s center is also home to the Eleven Media Group, one of the largest private media companies in the country.

The office used to be bustling too, with more than 100 reporters, but it has come under strain recently.

One reporter from Eleven Media was beaten to death last month. The 35-year-old journalist was working on a story about illegal logging.

And the company’s founder was just released on bail, after spending two months in jail for “online defamation”, after he accused a minister of corruption.

To many journalists here, what is happening at Eleven Media is a deeply worrying sign.

This decades old circular train line has operated in Yangon since the colonial days of the British.

The train also passes Insein, the location of the infamous Insein prison, where many journalists were detained during the years of military rule. Almost all have been released now, but some things haven’t changed.

Last July a human rights activist was arrested on politically motivated charges of sedition. While a senior politician was charged with defamation after he criticized the military chief in a Facebook post. 

And, under pressure from the government, the Myanmar Times recently fired a foreign journalist for reporting on human rights violations against the ethnic Rohingya minority.

I’m taking the train to Kamayut, to reach the office of journalist May Thingyan Hein.

“Our life is fighting for democracy, long time, like thirty years. Now I’m tired,” she tells me. 

May is a veteran journalist, one who stood against the military regime for thirty years.

During those years she was arrested and her articles were banned. Now, under the civilian-led government of Aung San Suu Kyi, May says the media still faces many challenges.

“One challenge is the reader, audience behavior has changed. Other challenging thing is government media, they have the big market share.”

The government-run media has a national newspaper, radio and television station, inherited from the military era.

New, private media companies are just a few years old. And most are struggling to compete against the state press for advertising revenue.

But that’s not the biggest challenge. May says that all media outlets are careful and fearful even now, and self censorhip is common.

The Electronic Act or Article 66(d) of the telecommunications law dates back to the military-backed administration of former president, U Thein Sein. 

The law states that whoever is convicted of using a “telecommunications network to extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence, or intimidate,” can be imprisoned for three years.

Since April last year, the law has been used been used 38 times - against journalists, politicians and social media users.

And there has been almost as many defamation cases too.

Kyaw San Min is the editor in chief of The Voice daily newspaper.

When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party, or the NLD, came to power in 2015, he too believed that things would be different.

According to Kyaw San Min, the information minister is a former journalist and was the deputy chairman of the Press Council. 

“He can’t change the government mindset but he changed his mindset,” Min says.

Kyaw San Min says the civilian government controls information just as tightly as the last.

“Now we can publish freely because the censor board was cancelled. But we can’t get the information from the government. That’s a big problem,” explains Min.

May and Kyaw San Min are not the only ones that are frustrated. 

Swe Min is the chief editor of Myanmar Now, a news agency born in 2015.

He says the new government doesn’t let reporters question them freely, and is hardly media friendly.

“Considering the recent arrests of some reporters and the death of one reporter, together with all incidents, since the power transfer to this government it is fair to say that the Information Ministry and the new government are not media friendly,” Swe Min states.

And like other journalists in Myanmar, Swe Min sees few changes so far.

“As for the Information Ministry, it continues to function as a military propaganda machine like it did in the past under military regimes,” he concludes.

For Myanmar, some changes are still yet to come.

 

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