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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 11/10/14

Is Burma's reform backtracking as press freedom at stake?

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Freedom of the press is the basic right of citizens of all nations. The right of every citizen to read news is clearly similar to free flow of information including freedom of news production, speech and writing. Particularly in independent societies, freedom of the press means the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government.

At some points in the recent years in Burma, the dissolution of press censorship, permitting private newspapers and creation of an Interim Press Council are signs of progress concerning freedom of the press. Thanks to Mr. President for such improvement in media sector, especially it is remarkable that the President acknowledges the major role of the media as the fourth estate, in his speeches.

However, contrary to the President's stance, it is regrettable that three journalists and the two owners of the Bi Moon-Tae-Nay Journal in Burma were sentenced to two years in prison on 16th October. They were charged under section 505 (b) of the Burma penal code for making false report that can "alarm the public".

Bi Moon-Tae-Nay Journal's three journalists - Kyaw Zaw Hein, Win Tin, Thura Aung, and owners Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing - were detained in July, and were cross-examined by the special-branch police. The arrests came after the journalists covered an article quoting an untrue statement issued by the Myanmar Democratic Current Force (MDCF). The said statement mentions the people of Burma appointed the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic democracy forces as interim government. MDCF stands for grassroots communities and campaigns in opposition to land-grabbing and a range of human rights abuses in the country.

They were investigated by the special branch police and charged under section 505 (b) of Burma's penal code for agitating people to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.

Subsequent to the arrests of the owners, editors and journalists, the weekly was shut down and on 16 October, Pa-be-dan Township Court of Rangoon Division sentenced them to 2 years in prison. Under Section 505 (b) of Penal Code, the verdict was the highest penalty. Section 505 (b) is one of the dictatorial laws which the successive military regimes uses to put political activists and journalists behind bars.

The prison term of the Bi Moon-Tae-Nay journalists and owners is one of the most up-to-date criminal cases by authorities against journalists and seems to be part of systematic attempt by the regime to control and threaten media around the country. Media sector had been enjoying a brief period of press freedom following President Thein Sein lifted junta-made restrictions in mid-2012.

In July also, a court at Pakkoku in Magway Division sentenced four journalists and a CEO of the Unity journal to 10 years in prison under the State Secrets Act for reporting on a secretive military facility. The harsh sentence was later decreased to 7 years. Five media personnel of the defunct Unity Weekly journal were thrown into jail for ten years with hard labor after being found guilty of uncovering the State secrets.

Four reporters and the journal's CEO were sentenced on 10 July under charges of trespassing and breaking Burma's colonial legacy of the 1923 Official Secrets Act. The regime charged them soon after they published an investigative account in January stating the military facility was designed for the invention of chemical weapons.

However, the public has a right to be informed on a subject of general interest like the story covered by the Unity Journal. Journalists who are just doing their job must be protected, and if anyone has to be prosecuted, it should be the newspaper. Under no circumstances should journalists be imprisoned because of the content of their articles.

The prosecution of Unity Weekly and Bi Moon-Tae-Nay are signs of Burma's intensifying aggression towards journalists within its boundaries, a clear inconsistency to the reforms supposedly enacted in 2012. The latter example highlights another aspect of the problem, cooperation between regional governments in pursuing journalists accused of undermining state security.

Recently, people were traumatized receiving inexcusable news about Burma army's rough treatment against a freelancer. Soldiers from Burma Army shot dead freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing alias Par Gyi while the journalist was in military custody, according to a Burma Army's statement sent to the local Interim Press Council.

The journalist had been killed by soldiers from No. 208 Light Infantry Battalion on the outskirts of Kyaikmayaw Township in southeastern Mon State, according to news reports. The statement said Par Gyi was first detained on September 30. He was killed on October 4 and his body was buried at Shwe War Chong, a village some 20 km from Kyaikmayaw, without releasing any information publicly.

Par Gyi was arrested in public in Kyaikmayaw on 30 September while he was on his way back after carrying out a photo assignment on clashes between the military and the rebel Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) in Mon State, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said.

The question is that why did the military release information too late. Why did the military itself take responsibility of releasing the statement? Instead, the interim press council relayed the death message of Par Gyi on behalf of the military on 23 October.

The killing of freelancer Par Gyi comes as President Thein Sein Government has been preparing to receive U.S. President Barack Obama at the ASEAN Summit on 12 November. The U.S. State Department has called for a transparent investigation into freelance reporter Par Gyi's death. The freelance journalist's death takes place at a vulnerable time for the Burmese government amid growing U.S. concerns about the human rights situation in the conflict zones where ethnic population live.

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Zin Linn was born on February 9, 1946 in a small town in Mandalay Division. He began writing poems in 1960 and received a B.A (Philosophy) in 1976. He became an activist in the High School Union after the students' massacre on 7th July 1962. (more...)

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