Beginning in 2012, the Burmese actively promoted press freedom within its borders, freeing imprisoned journalists, rolling back pre-publication censorship and allowing the spread of independent journalism across the country, even in areas where it was previously banned. This lasted nine years until the February 2021 coup.
In the few months since February, Myanmar’s junta has “effectively criminalized independent journalism,” argues this report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom and tracks journalists imprisoned globally. The report, titled “Bitter reversal: Myanmar military coup wipes out press freedom gains,” denounces the fact that the junta government now jails more journalists than most countries in the world.
On December 1, 2020, one journalist was held in Burmese prison; on June 27, 2021, four months after the coup, more than 44 were behind bars. After a mass release of 2,000 detainees, including journalists, on July 1, 2021, this number went down to 32. The identities and information about each of these detained journalists can be found in the report.
CPJ releases an annual census, which they use to rank countries by the number of journalists in their prisons at that time. In their December 2021 tally, the worst jailers of journalists were China (with 48 behind bars), Turkey (47), Saudi Arabia (26) and Egypt (26). Even with the recent releases, the junta has matched, and in some cases has exceeded, the numbers of authoritarian regimes that have consistently ranked in CPJ’s census.
How did this happen so quickly?
Myanmar’s penal code was amended two weeks after the coup. Article 505(a), the violation for which 24 reporters have already been charged, was one such change. Now the law penalizes “false news” and criminalizes “any attempt to cause fear, spread false news or agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee” or which “causes their hatred, disobedience, or disloyalty toward the military and the government.” The law framed these criminal acts as an attack on national security and increased the maximum penalty from two to three years.
In the few months since February, Myanmar’s junta has “effectively criminalized independent journalism.”
The report notes that the Burmese military has been pressuring prosecutors and judges to rule against journalists on national security charges rather than using media laws, which offer more protection based on the principles of the freedom of the press. The amended Article 505(a) will remain in place until at least February 2022, or as long as the junta’s emergency rule lasts. News stories published after the report indicate that this could be until summer 2023.
The Committee to Protect Journalists believes that the current number of imprisoned journalists in Myanmar — 32 — is a low estimate due to news organizations’ reluctance to identify freelancers or non-staff reporters. They fear those individuals could be further penalized by being marked as members of the media.
Newspapers have gone underground to avoid being caught up in the crackdown, communicating at night to evade government monitoring. They also have to work around Internet restrictions imposed to “prevent chaos and violence” engendered online. Some reporters have fled the country, finding countries less sympathetic to them than during the last military dictatorship in Myanmar. Now these neighboring governments have more diplomatic and economic ties to the country the journalists are fleeing from.
The crackdown in the country is not limited to domestic journalists – the report by CPJ notes that the junta regime has temporarily detained journalists with international news agencies including AP and the BBC.
CPJ offers recommendations to move forward and support press freedom in the country.
To the junta:
To release all journalists in detention, drop pending charges against them, repeal outstanding arrest warrants for others, and stop using Article 505(a) against reporters;
To immediately stop any torture or abuse by authorities, investigate allegations of abuse and bring those responsible to justice;
To restore revoked news outlets’ and news broadcasters’ licenses, abolish the ban on satellite TV and news stations and ensure the safety of reporters in the future;
To withdraw all existing censorship orders and stop issuing additional ones; and
To allow international and exiled journalists to return and practice journalism without fear of reprisal.
To the international community:
For governments and international organizations to implement necessary sanctions, monitor the suppression of free and independent press in the country, send special envoys into Myanmar to uphold press freedom from inside the country and create coordinated, long-term approaches for assisting exiled journalists. The report calls upon the Council of the EU, EU, U.S. missions in India and Thailand, UN Office for High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN leadership and ASEAN specifically.
For neighboring countries to give sanctuary to fleeing journalists from Myanmar; and
For the U.S. and other donors to provide funding to exiled media organizations similar to how they did the last time Myanmar was under military rule.
The CPJ report ends on a hopeful note, quoting Burmese journalist Aye Chan Naing saying, “The military junta never succeeded in the past decades and they never will.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists is an internationally-renown press-freedom defender. The NGO states in its mission statement that “journalist safety is our top priority.” They value and uphold freedom of expression in its importance in providing access to independent information and holding the powerful to account.