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Myanmar takes a step back on road to democracy

The jailing of a journalist for reporting on corruption is a worrying sign that the reform process has stalled

Without general elections, press freedom and the right to protest or exchange opinions, a society cannot be called a democracy.

Myanmar is facing a crucial test as it undertakes reforms that are supposed to bring about democracy. At this delicate juncture it cannot afford restrictions on freedom of the press or of expression. Unfortunately, such blocks to the country's progress are occurring again and again.

Last month Ma Khine of the newspaper Daily Eleven was handed a three-month jail sentence for reporting on corruption in the country. A court in Kayah State convicted her of trespassing, using abusive language and defamation.

What she had actually been doing was trying to ensure a transparent system of governance - a basic requirement of democracy.

Myanmar has only recently emerged from decades of rule by a secretive military junta, under which corruption and abuse of power were rampant. With the country now touting democratic credentials, murky governance must be opened up to public examination. This is where the media have a vital role, exposing irregularities and wrongdoing to the public gaze.

President Thein Sein has championed reform since taking the helm in 2011. Under his watch, business and governance have become more transparent. The government has freed up political space for many, including the opposition. It has also gone some way to meeting its pledge to release all political prisoners.

The media have also benefited from the reform, with a broader range of expression permitted. The authorities have abolished censorship and allowed the establishment of privately owned daily newspapers for the first time in five decades. Under the junta, journalists in Myanmar worked under some of the tightest restrictions in the world, subject to routine state surveillance, phone-tapping and rigid censorship.

It seems that old habits die hard. The post-junta administration has maintained a grip on the mass media, but by different means. Some publications have been sued for defamation by government agencies. Ma Khine, however, is the first reporter to have been jailed under Thein Sein's rule. A lawyer she was interviewing for a story on corruption took offence at her questions and filed a defamation lawsuit.

Local and international media, as well as watchdogs such as the World Association of Newspapers and Reporters Without Borders, issued statements strongly condemning the prison sentence.

Last week in Yangon local journalists staged a rare protest to support their colleague. The right to information, they said, is the lifeblood of democracy. Imprisoning a journalist for doing her job was unjust and a threat to press freedom.

Of course, Ma Khine's work might have insulted - even defamed -its target. But if its aim was for transparency in public life, it has value for democracy. Jail is too harsh a punishment for using insulting words. A country claiming to be on the road to democracy cannot throw people in jail just for using harsh words to tell the truth.


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