Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two detained Reuters journalists, returned to a Yangon courtroom on March 28 for the latest hearing in their trial for handling "secret documents" related to security operations in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State. The pair had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men at a village in Maungdaw Township
, a chilling expose the wire service published in February. They face potential charges under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. At the hearing, Wa Lone made an appeal to Myanmar's new president Win Myint to work for their release and "bring about media freedom for the press." "We are now in Insein prison just because we covered the news. We have to go to court because we discovered [examples of] injustice," said Wa Lone.
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The pair have been incarcerated for over three months. Former US president Bill Clinton and current UN secretary-general Antonio Gutteres are among a raft of high-profile figures who been calling for their release. The case has drawn attention to how press freedom is backsliding in Myanmar, particularly since the civilian government led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi came to power two years ago. Optimism fades
It wasn't long ago that Myanmar was regarded as a shining light in terms of press freedom in Southeast Asia. After decades of isolated military rule, real democratic reform began in 2011 under the administration of former general Thein Sein. After the high-profile release of political prisoners and the cancellation of a controversial billion-dollar hydropower project in the country's north, one of Thein Sein's most significant early reforms was abolishing decades of pre-publication censorship. In August 2012, the country’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, which had existed in various forms since the early days of military rule in 1964, was eliminated. Then, in early 2013, daily publications were granted licenses to operate for the first time. Overnight, dozens of independent daily publications could be seen on Yangon’s streets. But that was about as good as things got. An officer stands guard outside Insein prison in Yangon in this June 2016 file photo. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
In July 2014, a court in central Myanmar sentenced four journalists and the chief executive of the now-defunct Unity
journal to 10 years' hard labor. Months earlier, the publication had run a front-page story claiming a factory in the town of Pakokku was being used by the military to manufacture chemical weapons — a charge the military denied. The Unity Five, as they became known, were released in April 2016 under a presidential amnesty. "Since the end of 2014, media reforms in Myanmar have stalled," said Edgardo Legaspi, executive director of the Southeast Asia Press Alliance. "The reforms put in place by the then-quasi-military government under Thein Sein reached their limit with the arrest of journalists," he said, referring to the Unity reporters. "We had hoped reforms would resume after the NLD [National League for Democracy] won the election in November 2015, but we have been very disappointed." A new threat
The backsliding on press freedom has been a hot topic since the NLD came to power. One of the most notorious examples has been the increased use of a vaguely worded clause used to incarcerate people — specifically, journalists and civilians — for "online defamation." Meanwhile, the Telecommunications Law was enacted in 2013 with the aim of monitoring the telco industry, which was emerging from a decades-long state-run monopoly. But tagged onto this new legislation was a little-known clause, section 66(d), which provides up to three years in prison for "extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network." Under the Thein Sein administration, which ended in March 2016, 11 cases were raised under 66(d), according to data collected by Athan, a free speech advocacy group. In the two years since the NLD came to power, more than 100 cases have come to light under the clause, the research shows. About a quarter involve journalists. Soldiers guard Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State, where the two Reuters journalists had been investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men. (Photo by STR/AFP).
"The situation has not improved, they [the government] still use 66(d) to protect themselves from criticism from opposition forces," said Maung Saungkha, executive director of Athan. He spent six months behind bars for violating the same clause by writing a poem deemed critical of Thein Sein. "Article 66(d) is not suited to the Telecommunications Law and is vaguely worded," said Maung Saungkha. "It doesn’t meet international standards on freedom of expression and is confusing for people," he said, adding that Myanmar’s Penal Code already has a provision against defamation. Climate of fear
This has caused frayed nerves among journalists operating in the country and tension has grown since the uptick in violence in Rakhine State in August. The trigger for that was a series of attacks by fighters from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army
(ARSA). The military responded with a heavy-handed crackdown and in the ensuing months an estimated 700,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh. The international community has accused the army of using disproportionate force in its operation — including charges of ethnic cleansing
— but officers and government officials claim they are conducting a legitimate clearance operation. Set against this context, Myanmar journalist Aung Naing Soe was arrested alongside two international journalists and their driver last October while reporting in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. They were charged under the 1934 Anti-Aircraft Law and accused of flying a drone near parliament before they were released in December. "We thought we would have press freedom but you can be in danger if you write something that makes the government or a public figure look bad," Aung Naing Soe told ucanews.com. "Especially under this government, we are seeing more cases that oppose freedom of expression." He said reporters in the country face significant pressure to toe the line, citing the case involving the Reuters journalists. "But we have to keep doing our job, and we will," he said. "We also have to take care of each other, like speaking up on behalf of our friends who are in danger due to their work. "Journalists, and especially foreign ones, are portrayed as public enemies and are accused of selling the country’s information. This can make the situation worse. Journalists are just doing their jobs, and the public should stand up for the press."