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Myanmar Is Simultaneously Expanding and Repressing Free Speech

The country’s government has approved press laws that establish journalistic rights and freedoms, as well as the means to crush them.

by Scott Pham
Mar 23 2014, 8:00pm

Photo by Adam Jones

Myanmar’s contradictions aren't hard to spot. Known also as Burma, the country is gravely poor yet remarkably rich in natural resources. Its supposedly civilian democracy is headed by a former general, a vestige of the military junta that ruled from 1962 to 2011. The government has relaxed political restrictions, but recent years have seen renewed sectarian violence.

Laws that President Thein Sein signed last week are also typically inconsistent, establishing freedom of the press as well as the means to crush it.

The “Media Bill” outlines the rights of journalists and affirms editorial autonomy. Considering Myanmar’s history of suppressing and imprisoning reporters, the International Federation of Journalists applauded its passage. “Implementing such a dramatic change for Myanmar’s media environment is a victory in itself,” it said.

But the second bill — whose name, “Printers and Publishers Registration Law,” ominously recalls the oppressive 1962 law it replaces — undermines the first. Drafted by the Ministry of Information, it establishes the government’s authority to issue and revoke licenses for publication for any reason, and prohibits the publication of material that jeopardizes “national security, rule of law or community peace and tranquility.”

The two laws reflect Myanmar’s habit of incrementally increasing freedom of speech while instituting new tools to curb it. Recently, the regime has used travel restrictions and the courts to obstruct reporters covering controversial topics.

The violence in Rakhine state between Buddhists and the persecuted Muslim minority group the Rohingya is particularly sensitive. Scores have died and more than 140,000 are displaced. When the government banned Doctors Without Borders from operating in the region, thousands of “stateless” Rohingya went without medical care. A recent report from human rights group Fortify Rights confirms that the government is systematically complicit in the violence.

Now reporters can’t even travel to Rakhine or other restive border regions, like Kachin or parts of Shan.

The restrictions aren’t limited to locals. Myanmar used to grant six-month multiple-entry visas to foreign reporters, but 28-day visas are now the norm. TIME East Asia reporter Hannah Beech was recently denied entry altogether when she tried to attend a Yangon media conference. The last-minute denial was probably due to her cover story on Ashin Wirathu, the self-proclaimed “Burmese bin Laden” who is accused of inciting many of Rakhine’s Buddhists to violence.

Some worry that where travel restrictions aren’t enough to stymie reporters, the government is using the courts to close the gap.

Unity Journal, a Burmese language paper, reported last month that a military factory in central Myanmar was involved in creating chemical weapons with the help of the Chinese. If true, the report would have major international repercussions. Myanmar is preparing to become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and is attempting to improve relations with Western powers. When Unity published the story, the government seized every copy and arrested four reporters and the CEO of the paper.

“It’s sending a very strong warning,” Bertil Lintner, a longtime foreign correspondent in Myanmar, told VICE News. “You know, ‘Don’t touch the defense industries.’ ”

The Committee to Protect Journalists is lobbying on the Unity journalists’ behalf. The group is being charged with violation of the State Secrets Act, a vague British colonial-era law. They face a maximum sentence of 14 years.

It’s hard to contend with one important aspect of the case, however: the story might be incorrect.

“It’s a crap report,” Lintner said. “It was poorly researched.”

Political columnist Sithu Aung Myint criticized the article in an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma: “The report contained some photographs and assumptions about the nature of the buildings inside the compound and also mentioned ‘rockets’, but it did not include any information to support these claims.”

These doubts, combined with the seriousness of the charges, make the group difficult to defend. But the story’s allegations are not implausible. Human rights groups have accused the military of using chemical weapons in border conflicts before.

Still, the government's repressive reflex is alarming in a country where private daily papers returned to newsstands only last year. If Myanmar fails to fulfill the promise of its reform effort, the black box around its deadliest areas will only grow.

Photo via Flickr