A Myanmar court last week found two Reuters reporters guilty of breaching a colonial-era law and sentenced them to seven years in prison in a landmark case that many international observers see as a bellwether for the fate of free press in the country.
Wa Lone, 32 and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 have been held in prison since December when they were arrested while investigating a massacre that had been ordered by government forces against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
The two were prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, a law which dates back to 1923 and British colonial rule.
The guilty verdict was met with outrage around the world, and fear from within the country about the chilling impact this could have on the work of other reporters.
“Today is a sad day for Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and the press everywhere,” Stephen Adler, Reuters editor in chief, said in a statement, adding that the charges were “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press”.
This use of the legal system in particular as a tool of intimidation against journalists in Myanmar isn’t new.
And, the Official Secrets Act, which covers, among other actions, entry into any prohibited place and the acquisition and possession of secret documents or information that might be “directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy”, is not the only archaic law that has been weaponised against the press.
In late June of 2017, three Myanmar journalists were charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, a 1908 statute that prevents interaction with individuals or groups that have been deemed “unlawful”. The law has been used to prevent the press from covering the country’s various ethnic armed conflicts. Those three journalists were eventually set free and the charges against them were dropped, but their detention was enough to set a frightening precedent.
And then there are the modern laws as well. The notably vague criminal defamation provision of Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law has been invoked to detain dozens of people – including several journalists. Those found guilty of breaking the law can be sent to prison for up to three years for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network”.
Victoria Milko, an American journalist working in Myanmar says “there’s a massive climate of fear when it comes to journalism in Myanmar, especially for local journalists who most often feel the strongest repercussions of being journalists”.
As a result, Milko says that in order to protect themselves, journalists are “forced to self-censor”. And, if they don’t, they feel the threat of reprisals “whether it’s from private business groups, the military or even from Aung San Suu Kyi’s [National League for Democracy] government”.
“Journalists here in Myanmar, especially when reporting on the military when reporting on the government, or when reporting on private businesses find ourselves double and triple-checking our work out of fear that someone will try to sue us for defamation or the military will come after us as we saw in the Reuters case.”
The concerns of these individual journalists are only compounded by the overall contraction of the media industry within the country. An economic downturn, coupled with stiff competition from Facebook, where the vast majority get their news, means that fewer and fewer local journalists can count on the relative stability, support and protection that employment at an outlet can provide.
“A lot of publications that are fantastic publications that rely on advertising or even just print revenue are dying really slowly,” says Milko.
“It’s a painful process and unless something changes in the economy or people take an interest in actual real journalism and not just propaganda and nationalistic attitudes it really is pretty daunting.” And, Milko adds, “the government doesn’t seem to care”.
And Milko says the independent press in Myanmar has given up on the hope they once held that the NLD would come to journalism’s rescue.
“I do think that people thought that when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took power that there would be a change for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”
“But,” Milko says, “it’s become startlingly clear to all of us that that’s not the case. That the NLD is indeed intending to continue the crackdown on freedom of expression and journalism in Myanmar.”