Briefing Paper: Inconvenient truths: How Journalists in Burma Continue to be Silenced

In December 2016, investigative reporter Ko Soe Moe Tun was found dead at the side of a road in Monywa, north-west of Mandalay. He had been beaten with wooden sticks and died as a result of a skull fracture. At the time of his murder he had been researching a story on illegal logging in Burma/Myanmar. A journalist with Eleven Myanmar, he had previously reported on other sensitive topics, such as KTV Karaoke bars secretly operating as brothels.

The consensus in Burma/Myanmar is that Ko Soe Moe Tun was murdered by those who wanted him silenced. The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged that the investigation consider journalism as the main motive behind Ko Soe Moe Tun’s murder.

Public statements released by the team investigating the murder seem to follow this logic. At the time of writing three suspects have been arrested, two of whom are KTV employees. The authorities have been quick to react and the investigation is being conducted in a transparent manner. In a statement published a week after the murder, Reporters Without Borders welcomed the progress made by the police and “the fact that they are working on the assumption that Soe Moe Tun was probably killed in connection with his work”.

Burma/Myanmar’s media landscape has changed dramatically since former President Thein Sein began a process of reforms in 2011 that brought an end to pre-publication censorship, saw the release of imprisoned journalists, and resulted in the establishment of a free and vibrant press. However, it seems that decades of ultra-censorship have not prepared Burma/Myanmar society for the challenges of unbridled freedom of expression.

Indeed, Ko Soe Moe Tun’s murder comes at a time of escalating intimidation of and violence against journalists in Burma/Myanmar. Freedom House’s 2016 Report on the Freedom of the Press in Burma/Myanmar noted improvements in the overall media landscape, but highlighted the risk of threats and violence faced by journalists who publish critical coverage of the government, military, and rebel groups. According to journalist Htu Khaing, “A media with teeth can also provoke a backlash.”

The beginning of Burma/Myanmar’s backsliding on freedom of expression can be traced to the murder of freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing (also known as Par Gyi) in 2014. Par Gyi was shot and killed by Burma/Myanmar army soldiers while in military custody and buried without his family being notified. He had been reporting on renewed fighting between Karen rebels and the military in Mon State. After his wife pushed for a government investigation into his killing, it was found that his body showed signs of torture. Two soldiers under investigation were later acquitted of murder charges by a military court, and the police ended their investigation into the case in April 2016 even though the Kyaikmayaw Township Court ruled that Par Gyi had died of “unnatural causes.” A change of government lawyer mid-investigation raised suspicion of government interference in the case. The outcome of the protracted case sent a clear message: it was business as usual in Burma/Myanmar.

 

Download full briefing paper in English HERE.

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