Speaking at an event in Rangoon on Sunday to mark World Press Freedom Day, Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Burma is lagging behind on press freedom.
Suu Kyi, who is also parliament’s Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee chairperson, said, “It was already too late when Burma first heard about press freedom. We have missed a window to fully realise the concept and develop ethics and a code of conduct. We have only achieved a degree of press freedom, when at the same time social media is already widespread. So now it is a little late.
“As we are lagging behind, we must work harder and be more attentive and dedicated.”
Sunday’s World Press Freedom Day event, held at the Novotel hotel near Inya Lake, was also joined by Information Minister Ye Htut who stressed that many Burmese media workers face intimidation on a regular basis.
“A form of threat [to press freedom] that we are seeing today is the consistent attacks on media workers via social media by individuals who hold different opinions and who criticise news groups for their policies. If it continues, this could be detrimental to press coverage of the general election,” he said.
Also addressing the issue of media coverage of the upcoming elections, which are slated for November, Sardar Umar Alam, the country head of the United Nation’s culture agency UNESCO, said, “We urge [Burma’s] authorities to make special efforts during the election period to ensure that the media community has free and full access, and reports freely without fear and intimidation from anyone.”
The calls for greater access and transparency come amid concerns that the current Burmese government has been backtracking on media freedoms over the past year, despite a significant easing of restrictions on journalists in the period after it came to power in 2011.
The Committee to Protect Journalists last month ranked Burma among the 10 most censored countries in the world.
That message was emphasised on Sunday by the Burmese writers and journalists’ network, PEN Myanmar, which released a statement on World Press Freedom Day calling for an amnesty for all 12 jailed reporters in the country.
The statement said PEN Myanmar strongly opposes government authorities detaining, arresting and threatening journalists without due cause.
“ … Many journalists have been charged, some are imprisoned and some are facing trial,” said PEN Myanmar’s Myo Myint Nyein. “Gradually, journalists are finding themselves walking on eggshells when trying to work. They could be jailed at any time. We are concerned about this. The government charges journalists using words such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’. PEN Myanmar opposes this.”
Currently, journalists from Unity Journal, Bi-Mon Te Nay news journal and Myanmar Global Post are imprisoned, while reporters and editors from Eleven News and Myanmar Herald have charges pending.
“The fact that 12 media workers will spend World Press Freedom Day languishing in prison speaks volumes about the reality journalists face in the country,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “The past years have seen a vibrant media scene emerge in Myanmar [Burma], but the authorities are doing their best to undermine this. Those journalists who dare to report on topics considered ‘sensitive’ by the government or military are harassed and imprisoned.
“With crucial general elections fast approaching, a free press will be more important than ever in Myanmar,” he added. “Those media workers imprisoned simply for their peaceful journalistic work are prisoners of conscience and must be released immediately, and authorities must respect the right to freedom of expression.”
Among those imprisoned are five media workers from the weekly Unity Journal – Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Sithu Soe and Tint San – who were each sentenced to ten years in prison with labour on charges related to the Official Secrets Act. The sentences were later reduced on appeal to seven years.
Amnesty International launched a social media campaign on World Press Freedom Day to demand the Unity journalists’ release.