It’s not often I wander into Myanmar journalism here, the field is ably covered by all the major media outlets in the West, and Sadaik is after all a home for authors and poets. Occasionally though, something tragic will happen which demands a response.
Yesterday two Reuters journalists were arrested in Yangon. Kyaw Soe Oo I don’t know, but Wa Lone I do. Though Wa Lone was familiar to many as a journalist, I knew him more for his work in literature. As a co-founder of the Myanmar Storytellers Association, he worked to instill the love of reading and telling stories to youth in and outside of Yangon. As a contributor to the Third Story Project, he helped to publish and distribute hundreds of thousands of locally written children’s books to monasteries, churches and IDP camps across the country.
His arrest is a shock, the fact that it happened whilst he was doing his job wasn’t. More and more, journalists in Myanmar are working under conditions that are not so dissimilar to that under the Junta. Pre-publication censorship has gone, but this undefinable need for those in authority to clamp down on freedom of speech through ancient laws, threats, intimidation and imprisonment hasn’t.
In April, publisher and editor Wai Yen Heinn (Iron Rose) was murdered in Yangon
In May, reporter Maw Oo Myar (Kayah Li language Kantarawaddy Times and DVB) abducted and injured in car crash in Loikaw.
In June, editor Kyaw Min Swe and columnist Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing (The Voice) arrested for publishing a satirical article that mocked a military propaganda film, charged under Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law.
Also in June, Lawi Weng (Irrawaddy), Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing (DVB) arrested after visiting a TNLA drug eradication ceremony, charged under Unlawful Association Act. All released in September.
In July, Chief Correspondent Ko Swe Win (Myanmar Now) arrested for a FB post calling for nationalist monk U Wirathu to be disrobed, charged under Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law
In October, Malaysian national Mok Choy Lin and Singaporean national Lau Hon Meng (TRT) arrested for flying a drone over the capital without permission, charged with violating Section 8 of the Import Export Law, along with their interpreter and driver.
And finally, in December, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (Reuters) charged under the 1923 Secret Officials Act.
In the last 6 months alone, 10 journalists, one interpreter and a driver arrested. These figures are comparable to any year under the previous military regime.
A closer scrutiny of the list reveals the three most common fetters used to censor those who dare to write in Myanmar.
The Unlawful Association Act of 1908 is a popular tool with vague, grey terms that allows for 2 to 5 years imprisonment for any contact with an illegal organisation. Given that many of the ethnic armed organisations are considered illegal, it is those in the ethnic states, in Kachin, Shan, Rakhine and elsewhere that bear the brunt of this Act. Many of these convictions see little attention in the media, though as a recent example, in October, a 14 year old Taang boy was arrested at a pagoda in Namhsan, Shan State, accused of connections to the Taang National Liberation Army. He was held in a local military encampment for seven days and beaten. On the eighth, he was brought before a closed military law court, where, without trial, without a translator (the boy doesn’t speak Burmese), without family or witnesses, was convicted under the Unlawful Association act and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment. A 14 year old political prisoner under a NLD government.
The Telecommunications Act of 2013 and in particular the sinister Section 66 (d) went from relative obscurity to the most popular tool of online censorship. According to the Research Team for Telecommunications Law (co-founded by the poet Maung Saung Kha, jailed under the law for his ‘penis’ poem in 2016), as of last August there have been a total of 85 prosecutions in the court, 7 brought under the previous Thein Sein administration and 78 since the NLD came to power, a massive spike. In a neck and neck race to the bottom, 7 of those 78 were filed by the military and 7 filed by the NLD themselves.
The ugly use of the Official Secrets Act to imprison journalists is best seen in the fate of the ‘Unity 5’ back in 2014. Five journalists from the Unity newspaper were sentenced to 10 years of hard labour under the Act for disclosing the location of secret military installations which the military denied even existed. They all served 2 years.
Given the seriousness the Tatmadaw place on this Act, and with jail terms that often outstretch the Telecommunications Law, it sadly does not look good for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
I hope I’m wrong.