In the 2018 Index, published in April, Myanmar was ranked 137th out of 180 countries, six places lower than in 2017. There is now every chance that it will fall even further in next year’s Index.
Its scores on “environment and self-censorship,” “transparency” and “media independence” – three of the seven indicators used by RSF to arrive at the overall score that determines a country’s ranking – are likely to worsen significantly unless the authorities take corrective measures.
Media independence violated
The seven-year jail sentences that Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo received on 3 September capped a farcical prosecution. The scheme that the military, police and judicial system jointly concocted to detain the two journalists stretched credulity and showed the lengths to which the authorities were ready to go in order to trample on media independence.
RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire wrote to the head of the government, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, on 6 September urging her to intercede on behalf of the two reporters. Her only response was to say that “they were not jailed because they were journalists” and that “the case has been held in open court.”
Their conviction was indicative of deep contempt for the rule of law and a complete absence of judicial transparency as regards press freedom. Just as the Official Secrets Act was used to convict them, so the sedition law was used in a completely opaque manner to impose a disproportionate seven-year jail sentence on the columnist Ngar Min Swe on 18 September.
Myanmar’s journalists now know that they run the risk of reprisals from the military apparatus if they try to cover what the UN has described as “genocide” in northwestern Rakhine state. Self-censorship is now the rule, as many journalists acknowledge, including Myanmar Now news website editor Swe Win, who is still being prosecuted for criticizing the anti-Muslim tirades of the fundamentalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu.
Poor environment, widespread self-censorship
Many subjects are off limits. The authorities have even prohibited use of the term “Rohingyas” in the media. Media outlets that do not comply are threatened with closure. US-funded Radio Free Asia was banned in June for refusing to refer to “Bengalis” instead of “Rohingyas,” as the government demands.
The environment for reporters is just as hostile on the other side of the country, in the northeast. As a result of a recent intensification in the conflict between the army and rebel groups in the states of Shan and Kachin, journalists are unable to cover vast areas controlled by the army. Those who dare to go there are exposed to serious threats and reprisals by the belligerents.
This means that the “environment and self-censorship” indicator, which represents 13% of a country’s evaluation in the World Press Freedom Index, has every chance of being badly affected. The addition of “media independence” (13%) and “transparency” (7%) means that a third of Myanmar’s overall score for the 2019 Index is already seriously compromised.
To contain this trend, RSF recommends that the authorities:
- Immediately release the journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and overturn their absurd conviction.
- Overturn the columnist Ngar Min Swe’s conviction and bring a different charge against him.
- Repeal the Official Secrets Act and the sedition law.
- Amend article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act, article 9 (g) of the news media law and article 500 of the Penal Code, which are supposed to prevent defamation but are used in practice as powerful censorship instruments.
- Create a media regulatory body that is completely independent of both the military and civilian authorities.
- Stop the security forces from intimidating journalists who try to gather information in Rakhine state and in the states of Shan and Kachin.
RSF issues an “incident report” whenever it notes a major deterioration in one or more of the indicators that are used to determine a country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. It is intended to be a warning to the authorities in the country concerned.
The seven indicators used to compile the Index are pluralism, media independence, abuses and acts of violence against journalists, the media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.