Last month a group of seven staff members at Burmese newspaper Bi Mon Te Nay (‘Bi-Midday Sun’) were arrested and are currently standing trial for allegedly endangering state security and inciting public alarm. If convicted, they face up to 14 years in prison. 

These latest charges were laid just before five journalists from the country’s Unity Journal were sentenced to 10 years of hard labour in prison. In both instances the arrests were made on the basis of just one published article each.

Why were so many journalists arrested?

In February of this year, Unity Journal published an article alleging that the Burmese military had seized land on which chemical weapons were going to be produced.

The government, which until 2011 had been run by a military dictatorship, denied the accusations and charged the five journalists under the country’s State Secrets Act. Included in the charges was criminal trespass in the restricted area of the factory, although the government insisted the facility did not produce chemical weapons.

More recently, the article published in Bi Mon Te Nay that provoked criminal prosecution concerned a misinformed quote by local activist group Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), which claimed that opposition and ethnic minority leaders had been ‘elected’ to lead a new interim government. The report also questioned the legitimacy and success of the current government, Burma’s first to be elected democratically.

A number of press freedom advocates, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the International Press Institute (IPI), have been calling for the release of all arrested journalists in Burma and have cited the growing number of arrests as an indicator of the government’s crackdown on the news media.

In response to the most recent round of arrests, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, Shawn Crispin, said: ‘These bogus security-related charges represent the latest assault on press freedom in Burma.’ 
He added: ‘The case against Bi Mon Te Nay makes clear that President Thein Sein’s once buoyant democratic reform program is now dead in the water. The international community should take note and respond with correspondingly punitive measures.’

On the issue of Burma’s press freedoms record, The New York Times reported that President Thein Sein stated in a nationally broadcast speech this past July: ‘If media freedoms are used to endanger state security rather than give benefits to the country, I want to announce that effective action will be taken under existing laws.’

Assessing Burma’s press freedoms

At the end of July, a UN envoy to Burma headed by Yanghee Lee, the new Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the country, completed a 10-day fact-finding mission about the state of the young democracy. 
Lee’s statement commended the progress that Burma has made in just three years since the new democratic government was established.

She added, however, that there are worrying signs of possible backtracking by the government, including ‘the intimidation, harassment, attacks, arrests and prosecution of journalists for reporting on issues deemed too sensitive or critical of those in power, as well as of civil society for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and association.’

The Special Rapporteur noted: ‘These patterns not only undermine the work of civil society and the media, but also impose a climate of fear and intimidation to the society at large.’ 
Despite the democratic program that the elected government began in 2011, Burma is ranked only 150 of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures three dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, knowledge (education), and a decent standard of living.

In addition, Burma is ranked just 145 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. RSF has noted that the press freedoms in a growing number of countries are being negatively affected by the tendency to interpret national security needs in an overly broad and abusive manner to the detriment of the right to inform and be informed.
It is from this perspective that the actions of the Burmese government need to be assessed.

Instead of seeking retractions from the newspapers or simply denying the reports, or even pursuing charges under any of Burma’s new press laws, the Union Journal staffers were charged under an outdated 1923 law that was passed by its former British colonists. Likewise, the Bi Mon Te Nay staffers were charged under a 1950 Emergency Provisions Act that was commonly used by the former military junta to imprison journalists.

If this pattern continues, it is not a question of whether the democratic reforms in Burma will fail, but how quickly.