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Journalists Face Death Threats, Prison in Myanmar’s Conflict-Torn Rakhine State

FILE - Residents carry the body of an ethnic Rakhine woman for burial in Rathedaung township, after fresh fighting in Rakhine state between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine force, Feb. 21, 2019.
FILE - Residents carry the body of an ethnic Rakhine woman for burial in Rathedaung township, after fresh fighting in Rakhine state between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine force, Feb. 21, 2019.

First came a death threat, then an arrest warrant. Now, Aung Marm Oo is in hiding, having narrowly escaped capture by slipping away from his brother’s apartment just hours before it was raided by officers from Special Branch, Myanmar’s feared police intelligence unit.

Hazards like this are all too common for journalists who step out of line in Rakhine state, a region already ravaged by a recent alleged genocide of the Rohingya minority, and where ethnic Rakhine rebels are now fighting the military for more autonomy.

Aung Marm Oo is the founder and executive director of Development Media Group (DMG), a news outlet based in the state capital Sittwe that has reported on human rights abuses during recent clashes between the rebel Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar military.

He is one of 52 journalists to face prosecution under various repressive laws since Myanmar’s first democratically elected civilian government in decades came to power in 2016.

His case is a reminder that little has changed for the country’s journalists despite the release in an amnesty last month of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters who were jailed after exposing a massacre of 10 Rohingya muslims.

It has also fueled criticism of the country’s leader, former human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to repeal laws that are routinely used to stifle independent journalism.

Speaking with VOA via email, Aung Marm Oo said that he is “hiding now in a safe and undisclosed location,” and has no intention of handing himself in any time soon. “I dare not even think about my personal security at the hands of Special Branch and the army,” he said.

He has evaded police since early May, when authorities charged him under a widely criticized law that criminalizes contact with groups deemed illegal by the government. The AA is one such group, but in order to do their jobs properly reporters often have little choice but to contact its members for information and comment.

The police have not disclosed exactly how Aung Marm Oo is alleged to have breached section 17/2 of the Unlawful Associations Act, which carries up to five years in prison. VOA was unable to reach police spokesperson Myo Thu Soe for comment.

Nickey Diamond, a Myanmar human rights specialist with advocacy group Fortify Rights, said Aung Marm Oo is being targeted because his publication’s coverage of the conflict in Rakhine “has made the military scared.”

“Targeting Aung Marm Oo is a warning to all independent media reporting on the Rakhine situation,” he added.

Shortly after filing the charges, officers summoned two senior reporters from DMG and questioned them about an article published in January to mark the first anniversary of a crackdown against a demonstration in Rakhine in which police killed seven protestors.

Myint Kyaw, secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Network, said there was no sign that DMG’s reporters had made contact with the AA while working on the report. “I don’t see any evidence that they breached the Unlawful Associations Act,” he told VOA.

Maung Sangkha, executive director of Athan, a group supporting freedom of expression in Myanmar, said: “The military can sue any media agency under that law for communicating with any ethnic armed organization… MPs should try to abolish it as soon as possible.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has a supermajority in parliament that means lawmakers could get rid of the act without any meaningful opposition.

But Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to do so because she agrees with the military that the law gives the authorities an “upper hand” over rebel groups, according to Myint Kyaw.

She has also failed to overturn other repressive legislation, including anti-defamation laws that carry prison sentences, because she sees them as valuable tools to use against her party’s own critics, activists believe.

It is not just harsh laws that pose a risk to reporters, especially in Rakhine state and other conflict-hit areas.

In 2017 a journalist who had covered Rakhine for a formerly exiled media outlet survived being stabbed by unidentified attackers in Sittwe. And in 2016 a small bomb exploded outside the office of Root Investigative Agency, another media outlet based in Sittwe, though no one was injured.

About a month before authorities filed charges against Aung Marm Oo, DMG received an email from an address that contained both the Myanmar word for patriot and the word Tatmadaw, the local name for Myanmar’s military.

The email warned DMG “to stand by the one and only army, the Tatmadaw. Otherwise we will not guarantee the lives of your journalists.”

“They will face a situation similar to U Ko Ni,” it added, referring to a constitutional lawyer and close aide to Aung San Suu Kyi who was assassinated in 2017.

If previous cases are anything to go by, whoever sent the threat will likely go unpunished while those they threatened will continue to live in fear of arrest.