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Myanmar Seen Intensifying Media Intimidation Ahead of Elections

FILE - Activists hold placards during a protest against the killing of Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance journalist, outside the city hall in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 26, 2014.
FILE - Activists hold placards during a protest against the killing of Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance journalist, outside the city hall in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 26, 2014.

Myanmar’s authorities are intensifying restrictions on media as the country approaches critical national elections, using threats, harassment and imprisonment to stifle independent journalists and outlets, according to an Amnesty International report released Wednesday.

“Journalists play such a crucial role around elections. They can help improve access to information, help people understand the choices they have to make,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty’s research director for Southeast Asia, told VOA. “The role of journalists, the role of freedom of expression around elections, really is crucial.”

At least 10 Myanmar media workers are in prison, all of them jailed in the last 12 months, according to the report.

Lines not to be crossed

Journalists in the Southeast Asian country, according to the report, are well aware there are “red lines” they cannot cross, including stories related to the powerful military, Buddhist extremists and the plight of the minority Rohingya, which the government will refer to only as Bengalis. In 2014, freelance reporter Aung Kyaw Naing was killed while in military custody after covering fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic Karen fighters.

Amnesty says such incidents mean a climate of fear persists for journalists in the country.

Some journalists, who are quoted in the report anonymously because of fear of reprisals, said military personnel had threatened to assault them or throw them in jail while they were covering issues related to the army, such as armed conflict in ethnic areas.

“They're self-censoring,” said Abbott. “To directly quote some of those we interviewed, they're 'walking a fine line.' They risk being taken to court anytime. And, also, they're concerned that information could be used against them if the political situation changes again.”

History of censorship

Myanmar’s media, since a 1962 military coup, spent decades under tight censorship that extended to films and even poetry. Reforms since 2011 have led to a lifting of bans on international news websites and prepublication censorship. Privately owned newspapers have also been permitted. But the state retains controls of the main broadcasters and publications.

VOA’s Burmese service television and radio newscasts are not blocked, and the language service has a bureau in Yangon.

Myanmar's Information Minister Ye Htut in recent months has defended the country's loosening of censorship laws once considered among the world's most restrictive. He has told reporters that Myanmar has experienced both positive and negative developments in recent years, which has shown that the government needs to work with the international news media.

He also said further reforms of policies governing the news media are not likely until after national elections, which are expected around November.

Five years ago, the country's previous poll brought to power a semicivilian reformist government.

The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, is likely to secure the largest bloc of seats in the legislature, according to analysts.

The NLD, in 1990, swept 82 percent of the seats, but the results were invalidated by the military.

Negotiations with ethnic minorities

After decades of protracted civil conflict and brutal crackdowns, the armed forces in recent years have taken steps to address grievances of the dozens of ethnic minority groups and signed a string if cease-fire agreements with rebel armies.

“We're asking for the international community to really remain vigilant now as Myanmar heads into the election. The international spotlight is on Myanmar,” said Amnesty's Abbott. “This is a chance to really push the government to make sure that some of its promises are put into practice.”