The Myanmar military authorities should immediately drop charges against journalists, said Amnesty International today. This includes those in pre-trial detention, on bail, or those with warrants outstanding on them solely for carrying out their work and the peaceful exercise of their human rights.
“Journalists are at the frontline of the struggle to expose the truth on what is happening in Myanmar today,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research.
“The brazen violence, intimidation and harassment the military authorities are levelling at them only illustrates how powerful exposing the truth can be. Individual journalists can be threatened, arrested, or even meet a worse fate, but Myanmar’s free media as a whole can never be silenced.”
The ongoing persecution, intimidation, harassment and violence faced by journalists in Myanmar constitutes a clear attempt by the military authorities to suppress peaceful dissent and obscure violations committed by security forces in the wake of the 1 February coup. The nationwide crackdown has resulted in widespread denial of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
On 24 May, American citizen Danny Fenster became the third foreign journalist arrested and detained since the coup. He was arrested by authorities at Yangon’s Mingalardon Airport while waiting to board a flight to Malaysia. He was reportedly taken to Insein Prison and, as of 25 May, no charges have been made against him. Amnesty International believes that Danny Fenster was arrested for peacefully exercising his human rights. He must be released immediately and unconditionally.
As of 21 May, 88 journalists have been arrested since the 1 February coup, according to the most recent figures from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB). More than half remain in detention, and 33 are in hiding. Two have been released on bail. Dozens have fled the country or have sought refuge in territory controlled by Ethnic Armed Organizations. Two journalists have been injured by gunshot while covering protests.
“The arrest of Danny Fenster is a reminder of how the media in Myanmar has been targeted for trying to expose the human rights violations committed by the military in this ruthless crackdown,” said Emerlynne Gil.
“Despite the severe communications blackout, what the world knows about the military authorities’ abuses is a credit to the courage of journalists.”
Climate of fear: ‘We don’t want to go back to those days’
The military authorities’ crackdown on the media has resulted in a chilling effect on the press, access to information and other human rights. On 8 march, media outlets Myanmar NOW, Khit Thit Media, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Mizzima, and 7day had their licences revoked, in a ban that affects print, broadcast and digital platforms.
By mid-March 2021, there were no privately-run daily news journals left in circulation in the country, as many suspended operations. Journalists interviewed by Amnesty International voiced concerns that the ongoing crackdown in the wake of the coup heralds a return to the darkest days of censorship, self-censorship and state-sponsored disinformation. “We feel everything is heading back to our childhood days … we don’t want to go back to those days when we had only state-owned media, spreading propaganda,” said one Yangon-based reporter. “It’s really difficult to struggle and to survive as a journalist during this period in Myanmar. It’s not safe – not only for the journalists, but also their families. We are all facing this insecure situation every day. But we keep trying to report as much as we can.”
After an almost five-decade state monopoly on publishing and a heavy censorship regime, in 2012, the press scrutiny and registration department suspended pre-publication censorship. In 2013, Myanmar’s ministry of information began granting licences for privately-owned daily newspapers.
However, recent actions by the authorities mark a significant step backward for human rights including the right to freedom of expression, and a near-total dissipation of gains made for media freedom over the previous decade of quasi-civilian rule.
The Myanmar military authorities should ensure the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom are respect, protected, promoted and fulfilled including by unblocking independent news media websites and social media platforms, and restoring full internet connectivity as a matter of urgency.
Old laws, new amendments
On 3 March 2021, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) journalist Min Nyo was arrested while covering anti-coup protests in Pyay, Bago Region in central Myanmar. According to a statement from DVB, Min Nyo was beaten by police during arrest and sustained injuries. He was sentenced to three years’ jail time on 12 May under section 505(a) of the Penal Code.
This lengthy sentence is the second handed down to a journalist since the coup, after another DVB reporter May Thwe Aung was handed a month’s jail time under Section 188. The majority of journalists have been charged under Section 505(a) of the colonial-era Penal Code, which prohibits the publication or circulation of “statement, rumour or report … with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty”.
This broad provision has historically been used by the Myanmar military to target human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents, punishing those who distributed political pamphlets or sought to report news.
On 14 February 2021, the Myanmar military authorities announced a series of amendments, including additions to Section 505A. These new provisions criminalize those who cause or intend to cause fear, spread false news, agitate directly or indirectly criminal offence against a Government employee, bringing the maximum sentence up to three years, and introducing fines.
These amendments violate the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and pave the way for arrest and conviction on the basis of intent. It is not just journalists facing such charges: celebrity influencers, doctors, teachers, and other civil servants suspected of participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement general strike have had warrants issued against them under 505A, and other provisions.
Section 505A of the penal code, as well as the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and the Natural Disaster Management Law should be repealed or amended to comply with international human rights standards. The Myanmar military authorities must cease its assault on human rights including the right to freedom of expression and media freedom, ensure people’s rights to access information are upheld, and stop targeting journalists.