Sunday, June 8, 2014

Arrests of Journalists on Rise in Myanmar

Rabin Man Shakya

Although Myanmar has seen some qualitative changes in the newspaper industry, the Myanmar government still continues to tighten its grip on other means of mass media, such as, radio, television broadcasting and news agency.

On top of that, arrests of the journalists for what they write has become common in Myanmar, raising the question about the "hangover" of the 50-years rule of the former junta, and the specter of the analysts that progress on media freedom has stalled.

Four journalists with the "Unity" weekly newspaper and the newspaper CEO were detained recently in connection with a report about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in the north western city of Pauk.Similarly, last December, a reporter from the newspaper "Daily Eleven" was imprisoned for three months. Likewise, a journalist from the "Democratic Voice of Burma" news website, Zaw Pe, was incarcerated for a year for entering an education department office without authorization and  interviewing students.

As if all that is not enough, Myanmar has recently deported an Australian journalist, Agnus Watson working for the "Democratic Voice of Burma" after he reported on a demonstration calling for media freedom.

According to media reports, Watson's deportation is believed to be the first time a journalist has been declared "persona non grata" by the  Myanmar government since President Thein Sein's government began easing press censorship in 2012. Earlier this year, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times was sent back to Yangon, but not forced to leave the country, after the reporter was found reporting in restive Arakan State on a tourist visa.

The press censorship which was lifted in 2012 allowed journalists to print and publish news stories that would have been unimaginable under the rule of the generalissimo.But recent intimidation and arrests of journalists have cast doubts on the flourishing media scenario of Myanmar.

Ye Htut, a presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information, was quoted as saying on the Facebook that Watson would not have been deported, had he held a journalist visa. "He was on a business visa, but he participated in a protest that did not have government permission. So he violated the immigration and was deported," Ye Htut added in a statement on his Facebook page.

Judging by the magnitude of the press freedom, Freedom House,  an international press freedom watchdog had identified Myanmar as one of the world's blackest spots for free journalism. It goes without saying that during the entire 50-years old rule by the generalissimo, Myanmar maintained its long notoriety as a country which used the mass media as vehicle for political propaganda.

Frequent arrests of local journalists and Australian journalist's deportation have prompted Human Rights Watch to speak out that fears over the arrest and "intimidation" of journalists, as well as "vague" new press laws could inhibit reporting.

"This serious backsliding raises concerns about the government's commitment to a free press," said Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson. It is to be noted that Myanmar is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in the world press freedom index published in February, 2014 by Reporters Without Borders.

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