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'Press Freedom is Dead Already in Burma,' Journalist Says

FILE - Myanmar soldiers walk along a street during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021.
FILE - Myanmar soldiers walk along a street during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 28, 2021.

All reporters in Myanmar are at risk of being jailed just for doing their job, says a veteran journalist now in exile.

The comments from Ye Wint Thu come after a military-run court in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw sentenced two more journalists to prison this week.

Han Thar Nyein, the co-founder of Kamayut Media, and Than Htike Aung, a correspondent for Mizzima, were each sentenced to two years in prison for violating Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code law, which penalizes false news and incitement.

After seizing power, the ruling military government amended the penal code to criminalize comments questioning their legitimacy or that could cause fear or spread “false news.”

A lawyer for Han Thar Nyein told local news website Myanmar Now that his client was accused of inciting riots, something the journalist denies.

Both Han Thar Nyein and Than Htike Aung, who also denied the charge, have been in custody since March 2021.

Nathan Maung, an American-Burmese journalist who worked with Han Thar Nyein at Kamayut Media, told VOA there is no justice to the junta’s decision.

Maung himself was detained for 98 days and tortured inside Yangon’s Insein prison after the military coup in February 2021.

“Like other political detainees, Han Thar was sentenced with an unjustified charge. I [was] not surprised by what the junta does. There is no justice at all while they are in power,” Maung said.

“He loves working and engaging with people. People who know him well remember that Han Thar is sweet-talking about everything, and his big smile. I always remember him as he is a workaholic,” Maung added.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement Thursday called on the junta to “immediately” and “unconditionally” release both reporters, and to put an end to jailing journalists for their work.

Since the military seized power, 122 journalists have been arrested in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. As of March 25, 48 remain in custody, 20 have been convicted, and one has died in custody, according to Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring group in Southeast Asia.

Ye Wint Thu, a producer and TV host for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), said most journalists are unable to work without the risk of being arrested.

“Most of the journalists can’t do their job at all inside Burma. They can’t survive. At least, they have to flee their country, cross the border,” he said in a phone call with VOA.

Ye Wint Thu is living in exile in the United States. He fled Myanmar last year after the junta revoked the licences of several media outlets, including DVB.

The junta later announced that Ye Wint Thu is wanted for allegedly violating section 505a of the penal code.

“All the journalists in Burma ... already understand, since they became journalists, they’re ‘walking on the wall of prison.’ That is a Burmese saying: ‘They could be in jail for any reason’,” Ye Wint Thu said. “Press freedom is dead already in Burma.”

Restrictive environment

Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein believes coordinated attacks are being carried out on journalists seen as supportive of jailed democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party.

“At the beginning of the coup, the junta harassed and restricted all kinds of media and journalists. Since then, there is a very restricted environment to work for independent media in the country. Many media groups have stopped their production,” he said.

But the tactics are changing, Aung Thu Nyein said, with targeting of media seen as supportive of the National League for Democracy party.

Military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun has repeatedly denied journalists are targeted for their coverage. He told VOA earlier, “There is no reason to arrest, charge or jail media personnel if they do their media job.”

Freedom of the press has always been challenging in Myanmar but since the military coup the junta have cracked down further. Journalists have been harassed, arrested and jailed, media outlets have closed and access to internet blocked.

Nearly fourteen months into the military takeover, the country is experiencing violent clashes and the media struggle to operate.

While the world’s attention is largely diverted by Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, a lack of outside interest is not a concern in Myanmar because the people have little hope for international help, says Ye Wint Thu.

“You know, 99 percent of Burmese people don’t believe in international aid or help. Nothing changed. Even if the international hot news is all about Burma, it doesn’t affect anything,” he said.

Myanmar spent most of its modern history under military rule, until its first free elections in 2015.

After general elections in November 2020, the military contested the results, claiming widespread electoral fraud, without evidence.

Armed forces later removed the democratically elected government and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. Both were later sentenced to prison.

The coup has sparked a nationwide uprising and armed conflict between the military and civilian anti-coup defense forces. In October, the outgoing United Nations special envoy said Myanmar is in a state of civil war.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar watchdog based in Thailand, more than 1,700 people have been killed since the coup.