The Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN) met with Information Minister Ye Htut on Tuesday to discuss their concerns about the rising number of legal actions lodged by the Burmese government against media employees.
MJN’s secretary Myint Kyaw told DVB yesterday that Ye Htut accepted an invitation to meet at the group’s office in Rangoon, where the minister exchanged opinions with MJN members about Burma’s current media environment—including the two-year jail sentence handed down to five members of the Bi-Mon Te Nay news journal on 16 October.
During the meeting, Ye Htut promised the MJN that he would raise their concerns with President Thein Sein. The information minister also explained the government’s position on the Bi-Mon Te Nay case, in which five Bi-Mon Te Nay workers were prosecuted after their weekly news journal published a front-page article on 7 July containing a quote from an NGO called Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF). MDCF was quoted as saying that Aung San Suu Kyi and a group of ethnic leaders had been appointed by the people to form an interim government.
The charge against the Bi-Mon Te Nay employees was based on allegations that they played a role in publishing the story on 7 July—the same day that MDCF distributed pamphlets containing the erroneous interim government statement to people in front of Rangoon City Hall. However, Bi-Mon Te Nay published its front-page article about the MDCF’s statement before the MDCF even began distributing the pamphlets, and the story was dated 11 July despite the fact that it was published on the morning of 7 July.
All these facts gave government prosecutors plenty of circumstantial evidence that MDCF had given the Bi-Mon Te Nay information about their plans to distribute fliers before the event took place. Yet during their meeting with Burma’s Information Minister, MJN members explained that it’s actually quite common for activist groups to tip-off weekly news journals ahead of planned protests in order to give the publications accurate information and enough time to properly cover the story.
When interviewed yesterday, the MJN secretary told DVB that “Ye Htut said that the government assumes the Bi-Mon Te Nay coordinated with the Myanmar Democratic Current Force, a group that staged a protest…to help promote their cause to form an interim government. This is the government’s concern…”
The government decided to charge the five Bi-Mon Te Nay suspects with violating Burma’s Penal Code Article 505(b), a vaguely-worded criminal prohibition against making or spreading statements that can “alarm the public” or inducing someone to “commit an offence against the state.” According to the Irrawaddy, this charge was often used to crush dissent by the former military government.
Ye Htut’s meeting with the MJN marked the first time a government minister met with the journalist association—despite the fact that numerous NGO’s have been criticising the government this year for harassing the media and using the law as a tool to stifle the media.
In June, Human Rights Watch said the government was using “intimidation” tactics against local media, and Reporters Without Borders released a statement in July condemning Burma’s Special Branch—a police intelligence agency—for harassing the news media on the pretext of conducting financial audits. The Reporters Without Borders statement also said that Special Branch officers went to the Myanmar Herald’s office on 23 July and detained three of the news journal’s editors without any explanation.
Many other news media employees have been arrested this year in Burma, including five workers from the Unity Journal who were sentenced to tens years’ imprisonment in July on grounds of “exposing state secrets” after the journal published an article alleging the existence of a secret chemical weapons factory in central Burma. On 2 October the Unity Journal workers had their ten-year sentences reduced to seven years after a two-month appeal process.
Most recently, the wife of Par Gyi—a freelance journalist who went missing on his way back from covering Mon State’s armed conflict—held a press conference on Tuesday calling on President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to help bring her husband home. Before he began working as a freelance journalist, Par Gyi was a political activist and a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal security team during the 1988 uprising.
The missing journalist’s wife, Ma Thandar, told reporters at the press conference that Burmese army captain San Min Aung admitted to her that Par Gyi had been arrested. However, she said the captain also told her that he didn’t know where Par Gyi was being detained.
This year Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma 145th out of 180 countries on its press freedom index, but when asked by VOA about Burma’s low ranking Ye Htut said, “Burma does not deserve this ranking.”
Nonetheless, the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma’s human rights situation, Lee Yanghee, is expected to express concern about Burma’s lack of press freedom in her upcoming report to the UN General Assembly, and NGO’s are so concerned about Burma’s lack of press freedom and other human rights issues that a forum was held by civil society representatives in Yangon from 14-16 October to discuss a variety of human rights issues.
UN Special Rapporteur Lee’s upcoming report to the UN General Assembly on Burma is also expected to address what many perceive as the country’s recent “backsliding” on human rights issues and the general “shrinking of democratic space” in Burma.
However, Burma’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, took a different take on the country’s human rights situation in a speech he gave to the UN General Assembly on 29 September. During his speech, Wunna Maung Lwin said that Burma should be removed from the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council.
“All major concerns related to human rights have been addressed to a larger extent in the new Myanmar [Burma]. We have now reached the middle tier of the human rights ladder,” he said.
Meanwhile, President Thein Sein has been putting pressure on the European Union to stop submitting its own yearly report on Burma’s human rights situation to the UN General Assembly. Speaking at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting in Italy on 17 October, Thein Sein indicated that advice from outsiders wasn’t necessary because Burma is capable of taking care of its human rights problems on its own.
“The government is undertaking wide-ranging measures in the protection of human rights. The Myanmar [Burma] National Human Rights Commission has been formed and it is independently carrying out the task of protecting human rights. If there are violations of human rights, anyone can lodge a complaint,” said the president.
Thein Sein then added that “In spite of Myanmar’s [Burma’s] improving human rights, the international community has not recognised the situation yet. Myanmar [Burma] is taking comprehensive measures for the protection of human rights at home and aims to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council…”