People wear face masks amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in Yangon. Myanmar has reported 22 Covid-19 cases including one death. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Around 9.30pm on March 23, police raided the home of a Mandalay-based editor and arrested him on terrorism charges for publishing an interview with a Rakhine rebel representative.
A day later, police raided the office of news outlet Narinjara in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, to arrest its editor, who had also had posted an interview with the rebel spokesman. The senior journalist was not at the office and is now said to be in hiding.
Police seized computers and detained three reporters from Narinjara. They were released that evening.
On March 24, Yangon-based Khit Thit Media was raided by police seeking the arrest of its editor-in-chief, who had published a similar interview with the rebel spokesman. His whereabouts were unknown as of April 6.
In recent days, authorities have raided journalists’ homes and offices, interrogated them about their coverage of the Rakhine unrest and blocked websites that covered the ethnic conflict.
News sites run by the three editors who face arrest and are charged under terrorism laws were among those blocked under the government order.
On March 24, a court charged a Mandalay-based editor under the terrorism act, which carries penalties ranging from three years to life in prison.
Section 50(a) of the law authorizes sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison for “causing fear among the public” or “damaging the security of the public” while section 52(a) carries a sentence of three to seven years for activities that “knowingly involve a terrorist group.”
Just doing their jobs
Rights groups have called on Myanmar to immediately drop the charges against journalists as the actions have severely undermined press freedom and access to information in the country.
“The Myanmar authorities’ assault on media freedom by arresting journalists who are simply doing their job harms everyone’s access to information,” Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said in an April 2 statement.
“Counter-terrorism laws should never be used against journalists for their reporting,” said Lakhdhir, adding that “under these circumstances the future for press freedom in Myanmar is bleak.”
“Reporting on armed conflict is not the same as being a terrorist, and threatening a journalist with life in prison is inexcusable,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“During this critical time, we believe that it is very dangerous and irrational to detain journalists and block access to media, which are the eyes and ears of the people,” the Myanmar Press Freedom Center in Yangon said.
Myanmar is ranked 138 out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders.
Conflicts rage amid pandemic
While world leaders are preoccupied with tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, Myanmar’s military or Tatmadaw are fighting an ethnic conflict in Rakhine with the Arakan Army, a largely Buddhist militia seeking greater autonomy for indigenous ethnic Rakhine people.
The guerrilla outfit was formed in 2009 to protect ethnic Rakhine and is estimated to have several thousand well-equipped soldiers.
The conflict is one of the latest to erupt in a war-torn nation where armed groups drawn from ethnic minorities have battled over rights and territory for decades.
On March 23, the government formally branded the Arakan Army a terrorist group, saying it has incited fear and disrupted stability by attacking government and civilian targets.
Ethnic armed groups such as the Karen National Union and the Karenni National Progressive Party have called for a ceasefire because of the Covid-19 threat. The Tatmadaw, however, have reportedly rejected the calls.
Rakhine also has a separate conflict that has seen more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flee to neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017 due to military offensives.
Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Capacity Institute, said it’s a journalist's job to get voices from both sides to be impartial.
“The government and the military need to be magnanimous as prosecuting journalists under the terrorism law is not good for reconciliation and peace,” Khin Zaw Win told UCA News.
Longest internet blackout
The government has also ordered communication companies to block at least 220 websites, claiming they publish fake news and contribute towards instability in the country.
Local news websites that cover ethnic conflicts including Rakhine were among the banned list.
Rakhine and neighboring Chin state have been under an internet blackout since June 2019 in what amounts to one of the longest internet shutdowns by any government in the world.
Pe Than, a lower house MP for the Arakan National Party, said charging journalists under the harsh law and blocking news sites sends a signal of fear to other journalists and hinders independent reporting.
“It’s not a good sign while the country is battling the Covid-19 pandemic,” Pe Than, an ethnic Rakhine, told UCA News.
He called for granting access to journalists in Rakhine state to get first-hand reports and know the reality on the ground.
“By limiting media freedom and prosecuting journalists under harsh legislation, they attempt to curb free speech and the truth,” he added.
The crackdown on free speech comes as Myanmar is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic which has affected more than 1.4 million people worldwide and claimed more than 82,000 lives.
Myanmar had reported 22 Covid-19 cases including one death and tested 1,246 people out of more than 50 million people as of April 5.