Media intimidated ahead of Myanmar election, Amnesty claims

Aung San Suu Kyi in street art mode. [EdenJanineJim/Flickr]

Myanmar’s government, made up of ex-generals of the former military junta, is employing tactics associated with the erstwhile dictatorship to intimidate journalists before next weekend’s historic general elections, Amnesty International has said.

A distressing crackdown on freedom of expression has been carried out in that Southeast Asian country with the clear aim of creating a climate of fear prior to the balloting, Laura Haigh, Amnesty’s Myanmar researcher, told EFE.

Amnesty estimates that more than a dozen journalists are in prison after being convicted of violating laws that the London-based human rights group considers draconian and open to interpretation.

Since the beginning of the year, Amnesty has investigated cases of threats and intimidation of journalists who report on sensitive topics in the country’s recent history.
The pressure on independent media has been gathering steam in the build up to the 8 November vote – the first since widely-criticized elections in 2010 that ushered in a nominally civilian government after nearly five decades of military rule.

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In recent months, Myanmar has seen cases including, but not limited to, hefty fines, newspaper shutdowns, online hacking of pro-opposition media outlets and murders of journalists.

“The authorities are still resorting to the old tactics (associated with the junta) to stifle freedom of expression,” Haigh added. On 30 March 2011, the military junta handed over power to a civilian government made up of former army generals who traded in their uniforms in order to lead the country’s democratic transition.

President Thein Sein, who was prime minister from 2007 to 2011, during the last military junta, set in motion a process of democratic reforms that included releasing hundreds of political prisoners, ceasefire agreements with ethnic guerilla forces and greater human rights concessions.

One of the reforms most widely applauded by the international community was the abolishment of pre-publication censorship, a move that led to the proliferation of dozens of independent media outlets. But despite the new freedoms for the media, reporters are still wary of reporting on topics related to the Burmese army, the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority and religious intolerance and the surge in extremist Buddhist groups, Haigh said.

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Speaking about the case of Burmese journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, who died a year ago under “mysterious circumstances” while in military custody after being detained for covering the armed conflict in the state of Kachin, Haigh said authorities had failed to investigate the incident and bring those responsible to justice.

On another occasion, the CEO of the Eleven Media Group and the 2013 World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ Golden Pen of Freedom award winner, Than Htut Aung, was attacked by a group of unidentified persons who remain at large. Instances of hackers gaining access to the web portals of the pro-opposition media and posting false information on them are also not uncommon.

On 12 October, The Irrawady newspaper’s website was infiltrated by hackers who posted a fictitious article about the health of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the main opposition party. A few months ago, five workers at the Unity Weekly magazine were sentenced to seven years of imprisonment with hard labor after publishing a report on alleged secret government installations where chemical weapons were purportedly being manufactured.

A pervasive climate of impunity exists in Myanmar, where those responsible for human rights violations are rarely held accountable, Haigh said. The limits on freedom of expression prevent the Burmese people from sharing ideas and information and smother essential debate on the human rights situation, she added.

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