Counter-Terrorism Law Threatens Press Freedom, Freedom of Information
(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should immediately drop all charges against an editor for broadcasting an interview with an armed group representative, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 30, police arrested and charged Nay Myo Lin, the editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, under Myanmar’s overly broad Counter-Terrorism Law for an interview with the Arakan Army spokesperson.
In recent weeks, the Myanmar government has expanded its crackdown on journalists, including several editors. The actions have severely undermined press freedom and access to information in the country.
“The Myanmar authorities’ assault on media freedom by arresting journalists who are simply doing their job harms everyone’s access to information,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor. “Nay Myo Lin was unjustly charged and should immediately be released.”
On March 23, the Myanmar government designated the insurgent Arakan Army as a terrorist organization under the Counter-Terrorism Law and as an “unlawful association” under section 15(2) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act. On March 27, Nay Myo Lin interviewed the Arakan Army spokesperson Khaing Thu Kha and broadcast the interview under the title “Peace Process has stopped.”
The Mandalay Special Branch police filed a criminal complaint against Nay Myo Lin under sections 50(a) and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law. Section 50(a) of the law authorizes a minimum sentence of ten years and a maximum of life imprisonment for, among other actions, “causing fear among the public” or “damaging the security of the public.” Section 52(a) authorizes a sentence of three to seven years in prison for activities that “knowingly involve a terrorist group.”
Nay Myo Lin’s arrest reflects the government’s deepening crackdown on independent media. On March 31, police raided the home of the editor-in chief of the Yangon-based Khit Thit News media outlet. Police also raided the office of the Sittwe-based Narinjara news outlet, arresting three journalists – Thein Zaw, Aung Lin Htun, and Htun Khaing – and releasing them later that evening. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that the editor-in-chief of Narinjara, Khaing Mrat Kyaw, has been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law but has not been arrested.
“The baseless charges against Nay Myo Lin and Khaing Mrat Kyaw make clear that every journalist trying to cover Myanmar’s many conflicts is at risk,” Lakhdhir said. “So too are the humanitarian workers trying to bring aid to civilians at risk and human rights advocates monitoring abuse in conflict areas.”
While international human rights law allows governments to place restrictions on the media for national security reasons, these restrictions must be strictly necessary for a legitimate purpose and not be overbroad. They may not be used to suppress or withhold information of legitimate public interest not harmful to national security, or to prosecute journalists for reporting such information. For the government to fulfill this responsibility, journalists should be able to speak to and meet with a variety of people without fear of arrest or harassment – including those who are in conflict with the government or military.
The Myanmar government has repeatedly used draconian laws against journalists for reporting on military abuses or ethnic armed groups. In 2018, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were released on a presidential pardon after spending more than a year in jail. Aung Marm Oo, the editor-in-chief of the news agency Development Media Group (DMG), which has reported on the conflict in Rakhine State, is currently facing a complaint under the Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Access to information is rapidly diminishing under Myanmar’s current government. On March 23, the Ministry of Transport and Communications instructed four mobile operators to block access to 221 websites deemed to be spreading “fake news” or containing explicit content, according to the media.
Narinjara and Development Media Group said that since March 24, they have been blocked by all four mobile operators, which include Norway’s Telenor, Qatari-owned Ooredoo, military-affiliated MyTel and the state-owned MPT. Telenor is the only telecommunications provider to have issued a statement about the government directive.
The current editor-in-chief of DMG, Phadu Tun Aung, told local media that by blocking the only two ethnic-Rakhine media outlets, the government had effectively silenced ethnic Rakhine voices. “By blocking our websites, [the government is] restricting the people’s right to information,” he said. Other registered media outlets in Shan and Karen States and Mandalay region also reported that they were blocked.
Any government restrictions on websites should clearly explain why the content is being taken down and should focus on specific content rather than whole domains.
The government should also lift the continued internet shutdowns in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States, which threaten the safety of civilians as fighting between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar armed forces continues. The blanket shutdown violates international human rights law, which requires internet-based restrictions to be necessary and proportionate.
Internet service providers should fully resist unjustified internet shutdowns or takedowns, including by seeking a legal basis for any shutdown order and interpreting requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions. They should carry out their responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and avoid complicity in human rights abuses especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Myanmar government has increasingly acted to restrict access to information it does not like and punish those who bring it to light,” Lakhdhir said. “Counter-terrorism laws should never be used against journalists for their reporting. Under these circumstances the future for press freedom in Myanmar is bleak.”