Burma News International (BNI) has called on the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to drop lawsuits against leading editors of some of its member news agencies ahead of Myanmar’s November 8 general election.
In a statement on October 29, BNI said ethnic news media must have the right to cover and report freely as part of efforts to ensure free and fair elections in the country’s ethnic-minority areas.
The statement cited two high-profile cases, which it called representative examples of violations of press freedom for ethnic media.
On May 1, 2019, the Sittwe Special Branch of the Myanmar Police Force opened a case against the chief editor of Development Media Group (DMG), U Aung Marm Oo, and other staff under Section 17(2) of Unlawful Association Act. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.
The editor-in-chief of the Sittwe-based Narinjara News Agency, U Khaing Mrat Kyaw, was also charged, under the Counter-Terrorism Law, in March after publishing an interview with the spokesman of the Arakan Army, which the government has labeled a terrorist organisation.
DMG’s U Aung Marm Oo has been on the run since the case was opened against him in May 2019.
“They opened a case against me 18 months ago. But still I don’t know exactly why I was charged. I am still on the run,” U Aung Marm Oo said.
DMG applied for a news agency license and the renewal of an initial publishing license for the journal in early March of last year, but authorities did not reply, he said.
“This has affected the operations of my news agency. Such restrictions should be removed in consideration of press freedom in Arakan State. And internet restrictions should also be lifted,” said U Aung Marm Oo.
In the case of Narinjara News Agency, authorities dropped the charge against U Khaing Mrat Kyaw following mediation by the Myanmar Press Council. However, authorities still filed a complaint against the news agency to take action against it under media law.
Narinjara has found it difficult to obtain comment from the Myanmar military, police and government departments since his prosecution, said U Khaing Mrat Kyaw.
“People became afraid of engaging with the media as news agencies were raided and prosecuted,” he said, referring to instances like a police raid on Narinjara’s Sittwe office, and the temporary detention of three staff members for questioning, on March 31.
“And civil servants are also afraid that they will be charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law, and reporting is not as easy as it used to be. And we can’t interview the Tatmadaw at all. There were serious difficulties to contact Tatmadaw and police,” U Khaing Mrat Kyaw said.
After the government declared the Arakan Army (AA) a terrorist group and “unlawful association” on March 23, it filed a lawsuit against the editor-in-chief of Narinjara News Agency under the Counter-Terrorism Law for writing a report in contact with the ethnic armed group.
People living in areas in Arakan and Chin states where internet access has been throttled, meanwhile, do not have the same access to elections-related information as others.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications imposed censorship over telecommunications operators under Section 77 of the Telecommunications Law, blocking 2,147 websites, including ethnic media groups such as DMG, Narinjara News Agency, Karen News, and Voice of Myanmar in March and May of this year.
The ban on the websites of ethnic media groups and the prosecution of journalists of ethnic media organisations stands contrary to one of the incumbent government’s 2015 election promises, BNI said, noting a passage from NLD’s election manifesto: “The media, which is the eyes and ears of the people, will establish the right to freedom of expression and access to information in accordance with the code of ethics and dignity we uphold,” the BNI quoted the manifesto said.
The BNI statement called on the NLD-led government to immediately restore 4G internet connections in some townships currently deprived of high speed connections in Arakan and Chin states, and to immediately rescind any charges brought against the editors of BNI member organisations, whether under the Unlawful Association Act or the Counter-Terrorism Law.
BNI’s statement also demanded that government, Tatmadaw, police and administrative officials and spokespeople answer questions from major news organisations as well as local ethnic media outlets without discrimination.